With a cast of 12 characters that includes a nuclear scientist, a disgruntled secretary, two Italians and a butler, Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee, continuing at the Long Beach Playhouse through Feb. 10, offers a potentially strong brew. Stir famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot into the mix and you’ve got a compelling cup of complicated mystery.
Directed by Mitchell Nunn, Black Coffee is unusual in that it’s the first play Christie wrote, in 1929, ostensibly because she was unhappy with adaptations of her novels (and portrayals of Poirot in particular) for stage and screen at the time.
Set in scientist Sir Claud Amory’s home outside of London, the complex plot involves a stolen scientific formula, a set of lethal drugs, spies and, of course, murder. Who stole the formula and why? And who murders Sir Amory with a cup of coffee, and why?
Each of the characters in the home is suspect. Lucia (Jessica Plotin), the Italian wife of heir Richard Amory (Patrick Peterson), trembles with anxiety when we first see her in the home’s library, seeming to hold secrets from her husband.
Another Italian, Dr. Carelli (Henry Weaver), is clearly scheming about something, allowing Sir Amory’s wife Caroline (Martha Duncan) to voice her narrow views of “foreigners” in general and Italians in particular.
Rounding out the characters are very “modern” niece Barbara (Hayley Jackson), Sir Amory’s sullen secretary Edward Raynor (Lee Samuel Tanng) and butler Tredwell (Lawrence Ingalls), who arrives when summoned, but often reluctantly (and humorously).
Locked doors, blackouts, blackmail, powerful poisons, spy stories and hereditary revelations all surround Sir Amory’s death. It will take the obsessively meticulous Poirot (Rick Reischman), assisted by (though more like accompanied by) Captain Hastings (David Villaincourt), to unravel the truth.
Given so many actors on stage, it’s a credit to both the director and cast that no performance disappoints. Reischman makes an excellent and fastidious Poirot, compulsively straightening items in the library while sleuthing. And Villaincourt seems to enjoy playing eager sidekick Hastings, especially when dragged into the garden by the uninhibited niece.
All the Amorys are played commendably, particularly Plotin as the distraught though furtive Lucia, and Duncan as somewhat distracted wife Caroline, who shines in a scene describing to Poirot— in the most digressive way possible— how her husband had requested the lights turned off (so his formula could be anonymously returned), only to be found dead after chaos ensues.
Black Coffee unfolds over less than a day but is intricate in its machinations. You’ll enjoy the play’s British-ness while attempting to keep track of all the red herrings and changing your mind more than once about who did what. A cup of coffee beforehand is recommended, but take a pass on the sugar.
Black Coffee continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Feb. 10, with shows Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $20 to $24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit lbplayhouse.org.