Black Coffee by Agatha Christie. Directed by John Trainor. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
You do not know what harm you may do by remaining."
Toby Wherry and Meg Dooley; photo: Logane Robinson
"Black Coffee" should be consumed standing up, straight without sugar, and in as swift and decisive a manner as possible. Stiff upper-class lip. This is Agatha Christie's first play, written and produced in 1930, filmed in 1931 and novelized after her death and presented by the Theatre Barn in New Lebanon, NY. It is not her greatest work however clever it seems to be at times. It is a spy story with detective Hercule Poirot accidentally involved. Poirot, it always appears, knows the most interesting people in Europe socially. He and his genteel English companion, Captain Arthur Hastings, have been invited for a weekend at Abbot's Cleve, the home of scientist Sir Claud Amory. By the time they arrive, he is dead. Whodunit?
Treadwell, the butler, is creepy enough to be a suspect. Sir Claud's sister Caroline is loopy enough to be a suspect. His son Richard is desperate enough and they've quarreled recently over his allowance. Richard's wife Lucia is foreign, so she is naturally a suspect. Her acquaintance, the Italian Dr. Carelli, is a natural target, also being foreign. Edward Raynor, Sir Claud's secretary and assistant is the least likely as he doesn't seem able to raise his arms above his hips. And then there's Barbara Amory, a cousin who clearly dislikes Sir Claud. Seven suspects and the solution is at hand within twelve hours (or three acts with one intermission). That's how Hercule Poirot conducts business.
Directed by John Trainor, who is an old-hand with the annual Christie mystery at the Theater Barn , this plotty play plods on for what seems an eternity. I don't know if I was tired, or the cast was tired, or the play is just a bit tired, but it seemed to drag on and on without a light or amusing moment to relieve the agony of it. This is not what we usually get at the Barn when the Christie comes to stay. This was hard going.
The 1931 film managed to get through the story in 78 minutes. This play took two hours and 27 minutes. While there are red herrings along the way to distract and confuse the final reckoning they didn't confuse and confound in any good way here. Instead they simply lead us down false paths for a short while before another smelly fish took the former one's place.
Trainor plays the victim and he dies early leaving a group of actors who seemed to be under-rehearsed to fend for themselves. Accents were all over the map; most of them more middle American than London suburbs. Frankly, if everyone had stuck with middle American and let Poirot's French/Belgian accent be the only one on this stage it would have been preferable.
Meg Dooley's demi-brainless Caroline Amory was the best realized character in this play. She was consistently ditsy and I was grateful for that consistency. At least I knew who she was from start to finish. Ben Katagiri finished second in the consistency race, but unfortunately he was dull from one end of the play to another, still his character remained consistent.
Jamie Bock as Lucia was the highlight of tragedy from her first entrance to her ultimate confession. Daniel Dunlow maintained a staunchly symbolic high-end nerd ratio as Edward Raynor. Dionna Eshleman was the classic bit of British fluff as Barbara and her seduction scenes with the finely performed Captain Hastings (Stephen Powell in an excellent performance) were delightful.
Mike Hayes was mostly inaudible as Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard. Shaun Rice was almost non-existent in the brief role of Dr. Grahame. Toby Wherry was peculiar as Treadwell who seemed to be an outcast from a mental institution or prison. Aaron Holbritter gave Dr. Carelli a necessary smarminess, but it felt wrong somehow.
As Poirot the actor John Cromie left much to be desired. Nowhere was there the charisma of the little Belgian man with the odd sensual knowledge of the human spirit. His performance of the role on opening night left us with mere moments of the magic that character should bring to the stage. Hopefully this was just opening night jitters and the rest of the run will be kept centered by Poirot. Hopefully.
Abe Phelps' set was excellent with all of the classic elements of the Barn's Christie productions. Logane Robinson's costumes were nicely executed variants on 1930 styles. Nick Robinson's lighting was equal to the other production values.
John Trainor's "Black Coffee" is a blend of fine beans, weak water and a leaky mug. He gets so many of the elements right but there is no nuance to the mixture. It is as if the recipe got read sideways or upside-down. This is neither his finest moment, nor the Theater Barn's best presentation. The story is good, though, and the surprises are plentiful. But you have to love Agatha Christie to survive the evening. Many, many people will.
Black Coffee plays through July 20 at the Theater Barn, located at 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line to www.theaterbarn.com.