Killer Coffee 

Hercule Poirot is on the case in LTW's impressive Christie whodunit

Agatha Christie's Black Coffee so relishes its murder-mystery conventions that the suspects are gathered and locked in the drawing room together in the beginning, not just the end. Even if you can't guess who done it, you always know what to expect from Agatha Christie, and Live Theatre Workshop happily fulfills our expectations.

Black Coffee is set in an English country home (of course) in 1930. (LTW's costumes give the impression of being slightly later, but not much.) Wealthy private physicist Sir Claude Amory has developed a formula for an atomic bomb, but his secret formula goes missing just before dinner. After the meal, while coffee is being served, Sir Claude announces to his assembled household that he has called a private detective to investigate the matter, but he will give the thief a chance to end the matter immediately by returning the formula when the lights are cut. Blackout. Assorted odd noises. Lights up. Corpse in chair where Sir Claude had been sitting and sipping coffee.

We know that English coffee is terrible, but it shouldn't be deadly. Sir Claude has been poisoned, and Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, summoned to find the formula, now arrives to find a murder case on his hands.

Local Agatha Christie productions in the past few years have made the mistake of camping up the material, but here, director Jodi Rankin wisely takes the script at face value, avoiding parody while teasing out the play's natural humor with appropriate subtlety. (Christie makes sport of English xenophobia, while also poking fun at Poirot's tendency to preen.)

Chuck Rankin, who heretofore has been limited to secondary roles (including, I believe, that of a corpse) at LTW, takes a splendid turn as Poirot. He was apparently cast before his wife was engaged to direct, but even had nepotism come into play, Rankin proves worthy of the role. He may be insufficiently portly and too amiable for some tastes--this Poirot is amused by his own conceits and doesn't take himself too seriously--but he does come across as intelligent and Belgian, which are the character's two essential qualities.

The rest of the cast is very evenly matched. Two of the women stand out, though, and not merely through the nature of their roles.

Dana Armstrong plays one of the prime suspects, but this being Agatha Christie, because we quite clearly see her putting something in the coffee, she can't be the true killer. Armstrong has an impressive dramatic and comedic range, but LTW is starting to typecast her as the Troubled Heroine With a Dark Secret. This is the curse of Armstrong's elegance and intensity, both on display here.

Comic relief is provided by the irrepressible Holli Henderson as an oversexed (by English standards) family member. She's more tease than vamp, all suggestive glances and straying hands. No wonder Poirot's assistant keeps stumbling in from the garden with lipstick where it doesn't belong.

The accents are remarkably stable. On opening night, Rankin did for a split second sound more Southern than Belgian, and one line came off a little more like Inspector Clouseau than Hercule Poirot, but he got everything else just right, and French is what brings most actors to grief. Too bad most of the other actors referred to him as "Puh-roh."

One other linguistic vagary is more seriously confusing: Everybody pronounces the name of Armstrong's character, Lucia, as "loo-see-ah." True, the English are notoriously deaf to the rules of foreign pronunciation, but this Lucia is supposed to be Italian, isn't she? Or is she just an Englishwoman raised in Italy? Armstrong plays her with an English accent, misleadingly, I believe. Her ethnicity is one mystery that Agatha Christie didn't intend.

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