Many theatergoers in the Houston area agree that there is simply no better way to escape the summer heat than by enjoying the air-conditioning and fantastic who-done-it at the Alley Theatre. This year's selection for the annual Summer Chills series is BLACK COFFEE, the first play that Dame Agatha Christie wrote. BLACK COFFEE tells the story of a scientist's murder, with a cast of intriguing characters who all had at least one motive for wanting him dead. To solve the case Agatha Christie employs Hercule Poirot, who is one of literature's most famous detectives and, upon his 1975 death, the only fictional character to have an obituary published on the front page of The New York Times.
The star of this production of BLACK COFEE is the cast, crew, and creative team's attention to detail-even at the most miniscule level. Agatha Christie introduced Hercule Poirot in her first novel stating, "The neatness of his attire was almost incredible – a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound." Poirot's attention to detail and pristine appearances was made abundantly clear by James Black's flawless portrayal; however, it was echoed by the whole production. From the lighting design that cleverly illuminated five coffee cups and Hercule Poirot seconds before the end of Act I to the perfectly uttered Italian, French-Belgian, and English accents, no detail was too small to be given significant weight in this stunning production. The audience was required to pay attention to the exact location of each miniscule set piece and prop if they had any hopes of staying a step ahead of the super sleuth. Furthermore, no single line in the show exists as a throwaway for those hoping to solve the case themselves before the final reveal late in Act III. Gregory Boyd, as both the Artistic Director and production's director, deserves every kudo he gets for this attention to detail, but the kudos must go the actors, light designers, sound designers, scenic designers, and costume designers too for ensuring the fantastic follow through as well.
One would be hard pressed to find a better actor than James Black to portray Hercule Poirot. Not only does he look the part, but also he perfectly captures each of Poirot's infamous quirks, rendering a character that is thoroughly fascinating and altogether alive. James Black is celebrating his twenty-fourth consecutive season at the Alley Theatre. With the acting chops to be a renowned Broadway star, Houston audiences are lucky to be able to enjoy James Black's talents season after season.
Laura E. Campbell is making her Alley Theatre debut in BLACK COFFEE and is simply fantastic as Lucia Amory. Vacillating between appearing wholly guilty and completely vulnerable, she masterfully depicts a woman who is in serious emotional turmoil that faultlessly lends itself to Agatha Christie's ability to complicate audience suspicions. Laura E. Campbell delivers a stellar performance and will hopefully continue to work with the Alley for at least a handful of seasons, sharing her craft and continuing to delight Houston audiences.
The rest of the cast, mostly composed of Alley Theatre Resident Actors and Alley Theatre Visiting Artists, each do superb jobs in their assigned roles as well. While some audience members may recognize many of the faces on the stage, the professional skills of the company will ensure that they do not feel like they are seeing a rehashing of a previously played character. No characterization feels worn out and tired; instead, each portrayal is fresh, original, and ultimately enjoyable.
The cleverly designed lights for the show are sensational. Whether using footlights to cast large Film Noir-esque shadows or using ingenious soft spots to subtly highlighting clues for the audience, they perfectly capture the mood and ambience of the show. They never distract or detract from the acting, but each and every lighting cue heightens the experience and the chilling thrill of BLACK COFFEE.