Although Black Coffee is the very first play written by legendary British crime writer Dame Agatha Christie (1890–1976), it is still a strong brew that mixes rank familial ingratitude at their patriarch’s tightfistedness, with the greed of disgruntled servants, espionage, and blackmail. Black Coffee is as potent today in University Theatre at N.C. State’s current TheatreFest 2013 presentation, under the always-imaginative direction of John C. McIlwee, as it was when it debuted in London on Dec. 8, 1930. Indeed, McIlwee’s snappy staging injects liberal amounts of humor into the tense cat-and-mouse game that ensues after world-famous British atomic physicist and notorious cheapskate Sir Claud Amory (played to curdmudgeonly perfection by Triangle theater veteran John T. “Jack” Hall) is poisoned in the library of his house at Abbot’s Cleve, approximately 25 miles outside of London.
Whodunit? That is something for dandified Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (David Ring) — whose garish getups must be seen to be believed — and his conservatively dressed friend and colleague, British Army Capt. Arthur Hastings, O.B.E. (Danny Norris), to suss out, as Ring as Poiret delights the audience by exercising his “little gray cells” and Norris as Hastings provides much of the comic relief when the handsome but hopelessly ill-at-ease-with-women captain becomes the object of the affections of Sir Claud’s amorous niece Barbara Amory (Lynda Clark). Hall, Ring, Clark, and Norris — four of the brightest lights in the Triangle’s theatrical firmament — really light up the TheatreFest stage, which also boasts luminous performances by Eric Carl as Sir Claud’s haughty secretary Edward Raynor and JoAnne Dickinson as the distinguished physicist’s spinster sister Miss Caroline Amory, whose placid exterior camouflages deeper emotional currents beneath the skin.
North Carolina Theatre Conservatory student Jon Skinner and N.C. State University senior Leanna T. Hall play Sir Claud’s impecunious grandson Richard Amory and his half-Italian wife Lucia, who becomes agitated by the unexpected arrival at Abbot’s Cleve of the smarmy Italian physician Dr. Carelli (David Klionsky). Skinner as Richard fumes as Lucia’s increasingly unhinged responses to the appearance of Dr. Carelli, while Triangle crowd favorite David Klionsky really sinks his teeth into his role as the not-so-good doctor and limns the odious Carelli as the skunk at the Amory family’s house party.
Brook North as police Inspector Japp and Suzanne Kennedy as Sir Claud’s Scottish housekeeper Mrs. Tredwell contribute crisp cameos to this lively entertainment; and Michael Parker and N.C. State junior Kenny Hertling complete the cast as Sir Claud’s personal physician, Dr. Graham, and Constable Johnson, respectively.
Director John McIlwee, who doubles as the show’s costume, hair, and makeup designer, not only adds another laurel to his directorial crown; but he also burnishes his reputation as the Triangle’s Renaissance man of theater with fabulous fashions, hairdos, and makeup that facilitate this 1930 show’s restaging in the 1950s, when the stealing of U.S. and U.K. atomic secrets threatens to the Cold War turn hot. McIlwee also works closely with technical director and scenic designer David Jensen and lighting designer Joshua Reaves to recreate the well-appointed library of Sir Claud Amory’s house at Abbot’s Cleve, with a wonderful assortment of nooks and crannies where a secret formula can be hidden and with multiple doors behind which eavesdroppers can lurk for a variety of nefarious purposes.
SECOND OPINION: June 20th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=6256.
University Theatre at N.C. State presents Agatha Christie’s BLACK COFFEE at 7:30 p.m. June 26-28, 2 and 7:30 p.m. June 29, and 2 p.m. June 30 in the Titmus Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall, 2241 Dunn Ave., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607, presented as part of TheatreFest 2013.
TICKETS: $16 ($14 students and seniors), except $5 for NCSU students with ID.
BOX OFFICE: 919-515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089&event_val=COFF.
THEATREFEST 2013: http://ncsu.edu/theatre/theatrefest/index.html.
MAPS AND DIRECTIONS: http://www.ncsu.edu/arts/mapsanddirections.html.
Black Coffee (1930 play): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/1120/black-coffee (Samuel French, Inc.) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Coffee_%28play%29 (Wikipedia).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Review, a FREE weekly e-mail arts newsletter. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Review.
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