Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Review: 'Black Coffee' at Hedgerow

Hedgerow Theatre presents a 1930 Agatha Christie mystery. This "Black Coffee" is not exactly a spicy blend, but performed nicely. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'Black Coffee' at Hedgerow

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David Polgar, Zoran Kovcic as Hercule Poirot, and Rebecca Cureton in Agatha Christie’s “Black Coffee” at Hedgerow Theatre, near Media.

By Howard Shapiro

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, hshapiro@phillynews.com, 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.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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