By Howard Shapiro INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Agatha Christie's theatrical mystery, Black Coffee, is like her work in general: methodical and not showy. So too is her primary hero, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. And the same goes for the new production of the play that opened Friday night at Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley.
It all falls together – the late playwright-novelist's style, and the way Hedgerow, near Media, produces her. That certainly makes for a faithful portrayal of this 1930 show in which the insufferable patriarch of a wealthy family slumps over dead after someone messes with his coffee and Poirot walks into the scene and attempts without fuss or the slightest touch of élan to unveil the murderer.
It's not my particular cup of black coffee. I like a less perfunctory, more stimulating brew – although the opening-night audience, brimming with mystery buffs, seemed delighted as the plot unfolded all too neatly under Poirot's authority. Hedgerow's artistic director, Penelope Reed, stages it fluidly on a handsomely laid-out royal purple and greenish-blue living room set designed by her husband, Zoran Kovcic, who also plays Poirot, and the cast members certainly know how to bring it off.
But what, exactly, are they bringing off? Black Coffee seems stiff, even for 1930 British dialogue; some of the people are frightfully stylized, uttering the sort of lines you'd expect from Noel Coward if he weren't clever. The play gets the job done – we work our way through the logic and digest the little surprises that come in the characters' revelations.
But for me, that's another problem. Christie plots Black Coffee as if it were a written story, not an acted play: In comes Poirot and from then on, the play is an enactment of his detective interviews. Send in the dead man's son, please. Now, his niece. OK, now his secretary.
I found the format, if not the plot, mindlessly predictable, although the cast kept me flowing along with Black Coffee's orderly stream of events. Hedgerow has performed the play before, most recently in 1993; as Reed points out in the program, it's Christie's first stage work and the only one with Hercule Poirot – who figures large in her novels -- as a character. He is, in fact, the outstanding character in Black Coffee, a no-nonsense outsider among a cast of swells and high-lifes.
Individually, they are not that interesting, which is why the script lacks a certain energy, and when they are supposed to be, their backgrounds are impossible to believe. But Poirot is real, and Kovcic plays him nicely as a pensive, quiet presence – and sometimes too quiet, hard to understand through a thick Belgian accent and an unfailing poker face. The rest of the cast's dialects range from hugely to barely British; in a play like this, which does not rely on the precise and exaggerated comic delivery of British farces that are a Hedgerow Theatre trademark, the company could use a dialect coach.
Nevertheless, the overall portrayals are sure-footed – Susan Wefel as an overbearing chatty sister of the deceased, Karina Croskrey as the daughter in law and a main character in the plot, Jose Ramos as a physician who pops into the fray before it becomes lethal, Rebecca Cureton as the dead man's secretary, Maggie Cummings as an overheated niece, and others in the dozen-member cast. The costumes by Cathie Miglionico are handsomely suited to the time, in a play that feels like a museum piece, even for its time.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter.
Black Coffee: Playing at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, through Nov. 13. Tickets: $10-$29. Informaion: 610-565-4211 or www.hedgerowtheatre.org.