THEATER REVIEW: Poirot is on the case in Lyceum’s broad, funny, smart ‘Black Coffee’

August 6, 2011

ARROW ROCK — “Black Coffee” marks the second-straight year that the Lyceum Theatre has staged an Agatha Christie play, following last year’s “And Then There Were None.” And once again, Christie makes a for a great summer escape into a cool theater. The Lyceum should make this into an annual thing: the early August Agatha Christie play.

“Black Coffee” features impeccable acting talent, of course, but I had the most fun at Saturday’s premiere staging simply perusing the single set, a home library in the English countryside, presumably around 1930, when Christie wrote the play. I enjoyed looking around the room, seeking out the location of the stashed paper that holds the formula for a top-secret explosive that would give the possessor unthinkable power.

Noticing that the paper has gone missing from his safe, Sir Claude Amory (James Woodland) devises a “rat trap”; everyone in the home is locked in the library until Hercule Poirot (Michael Rothhaar) can arrive on the case. And just as the audience was counting Indian statues on the mantel in “And Then There Were None,” here Poirot goes straight to work counting coffee cups, one of which contained the poison that killed Sir Claude.

Rothhaar has fun playing everyone’s favorite portly Belgian sleuth, and the audience had fun watching him. Poirot’s reputation as a brilliant detective who is always a step ahead of the audience preceded him: A slight giggle of glee came from the crowd when he first appeared. And they ate it up when he capped off a monologue with this self-analysis: “I, Hercule Poirot, am a very good dog!”

Here’s a fun bit of trivia: “Black Coffee” was the first story Christie wrote specifically for the stage. Interestingly, the play still feels like novel that has been adapted, and that’s perhaps why it was turned into a novel in 1998 by Charles Osborne. In fact, last year’s “And Then There Were None” (which was a novel first) felt more play-like due to the physical action of characters being picked off one by one. “Black Coffee” is a more cerebral endeavor, as Poirot spends most of the middle act interviewing the people in the house, pretty much all of whom are suspects.

Although the characters mostly just talk, they aren’t stiff place-holders. In a surprisingly unprofessional twist, Poirot tells Lucia Amory (Stacey Harris) — the most obvious suspect by far (which of course means she couldn’t have done it) — that he intends to protect both her and her husband Richard (Jeffrey C. Wolf) as Inspector Japp (James Wright) of Scotland Yard digs into the case.

We know about Christie’s penchant for churning out a page-turner, but perhaps she was underrated as a character writer. Yes, these people are broadly drawn and initially defined by their accents (Italian, Belgian, variations on British), but they also interact in a believable, non-stagy manner. So although Poirot was the audience favorite, it was far from drudgery when other characters took the spotlight.

In a sequence the audience adored, Barbara Amory (Mallory Hawks) works her wiles on Poirot’s assistant and sounding board, Arthur Hastings (Gary Lindemann). Meanwhile, Lucia, Richard and Dr. Carelli (Michael James Reed) are caught in a love triangle; Miss Caroline Amory (Amy Warner) is a bit of a long-talker; and Sir Claude is a proper British version of a mad scientist — “The truth is never horrible, only interesting,” he says, when discussing the explosive formula that leads to all this hullabaloo.

Not just Rothhaar, but rather the whole cast had fun with their amusing portrayals and subplots that brought the laughs out of the audience. Still, most of the fun of “Black Coffee” — and the entire Christie catalogue — comes from our innate human fascination with murder and our desire to find out who the killer is — but only after our brains are teased for a while. So when it comes time for Poirot to unmask the killer, there are no laughs to be had — just respectful, attentive silence. Except for the scattered gasp or excited mumble.