There’s a fun bit of group choreography toward the front of Live Theatre Workshop’s production of Agatha Christie’s whodunit “Black Coffee.” Several of those properly dressed Brits with elegant manners get in a clumped-up mix of bodies while still managing to pass around a white china cup of coffee so it doesn’t spill.
Since the title is “Black Coffee,” the precipitous travels of that delicate cup become more important than the actors who keep it moving. Was there an unguarded moment when one of those busy hands might have slipped something into the coffee?
We can’t be sure, but it is accurate to report the real action begins right after the blackout. Which occurs right before the appearance of Belgian private investigator Hercule Poirot. Immediately after which, we discover Sir Claud Amory has died. Poisoned, it would seem, by drinking the coffee served to all the guests.
So why didn’t the others die, as well?
Aside from the obvious fact that would make “Black Coffee” a very short play, it must mean Sir Claud was targeted by an anonymous poisoner. But why? As it turns out, several of these nicely dressed characters seem to have a compelling motive for slipping the poison into Sir Claud’s cup.
Let’s pause to recount a little theater history taken from the program notes.
Agatha Christie wrote 84 novels and more than 100 short stories. She also wrote 19 plays beginning with “Black Coffee,” which introduced us to Hercule Poirot.
Fans of mystery theater have their own ideas about Poirot, whose personality was fleshed out to endearing dimensions by Christie over the decades. Here the director Jodi Rankin gives us an appropriately youthful Poirot in the performance of Chuck Rankin.
In private life the two are married, but onstage Poirot’s most trusted friend is Capt. Hastings, nicely played by Michael Martinez. There is good balance between the two as equally resourceful comrades. Though when there is a decision to be made, both agree Poirot is the one to make it.
Rankin gives Poirot kind of a floppy sheep dog quality, patient but also playful and physically intimidating when the occasion requires. While Sherlock Holmes would be content between solving cases to fill his time playing violin, this Poirot would most likely be thinking about sports. James Bond would be out racing sports cars.
So back to “Black Coffee.” The setting is an English manor house 25 miles from London in the early 1940s. Sir Claud (Paul Schumacher) is a brilliant and resourceful scientist who, we are told, has discovered the formula for making an atomic bomb.
No, the formula isn’t E=MC2. But it is written casually on a piece of ordinary notebook paper. When the play opens, this valuable page has been stolen from Sir Claud. Dramatically, he calls everyone in the house together – over coffee, of course – and announces the famous detective Hercule Poirot has been called in to find the missing formula.
But being a gentleman and all, Sir Claud will turn out the houselights for exactly one minute. If the formula is returned, Poirot will be sent on his way post haste.
The lights come back on. Sir Claud is dead and the hunt is on.
For fans of Christie’s plays, “Black Coffee” is the work of a budding talent we know will flower. Watching is like seeing a rose bud instead of a rose.
Christie also includes an anti-war message that feels particularly prescient. She puts in some scenes encouraging more multicultural attitudes, as well, and makes fun of British reserve on the subject of sex.
Also cast are Dana Armstrong (Lucia), Kevin Lucero Less (Richard), Kristi Loera (Miss Amory), Holli Henderson (Barbara), Nick Cianciotto (Dr. Carelli), Christopher Johnson (Raynor), Jack Goodhart (Dr. Graham/Inspector Japp) and Gary McGaha (Tredwell/Johnson).
IF YOU GO
What: Live Theatre Workshop presents “Black Coffee” by Agatha Christie.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, to April 30.
Where: Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd.
How much: $13-$16.
Details: For reservations, 327-4242.