From the massive success of “Knives Out” to episodic streaming offerings like “Only Murders in the Building,” “The Flight Attendant” and “The Afterparty,” the past few years have proved more and more that people enjoy a good murder mystery. So it’s perhaps no surprise that one of the greatest murder mystery writers of all time, Agatha Christie, is also seeing a resurgence, with Kenneth Branagh taking on Christie’s storied detective Hercule Poirot on the big screen and Taproot Theatre bringing Poirot to the stage in Christie’s “Black Coffee,” running in Seattle through Aug. 13.
“Black Coffee,” originally produced in 1930, is Christie’s earliest work written for the stage. The play takes place entirely in the library of Sir Claud Amory (a gorgeous set design from scenic and sound designer Mark Lund). Sir Amory has developed a formula for a game-changing type of explosive, a formula that winds up stolen during a dinner party at the Amory household. Amory locks himself, his family and his dinner guests in the library, shutting off the lights and allowing the thief a chance to return the stolen formula. Of course, when the lights turn back on, Sir Amory is dead and the formula is still missing. Unluckily for those in attendance, who all have a motive and something to hide, esteemed detective Hercule Poirot is on his way and on the case.
Watching Richard Nguyen Sloniker as Poirot interrogate and solve this mystery is a joy. Sloniker captures every nuance to Poirot, skillfully sliding between being a forceful interrogator who is always a step ahead to a meticulous observer with ticks for cleanliness and order. He flits between a compassionate confidante to the innocent, and an abrasive agitator to those who lie to him, with a knack for an almost condescending sarcasm because he knows he’s the smartest person in the room. What’s tough about this play is that it has a tendency to bog down, especially in scenes not driven by Poirot’s investigation.
Ideally, these moments are balanced by lighter comedic moments. One enjoyable running gag sees Kim Morris as Sir Amory’s sister Caroline talking away as someone else in the room, who is clearly trying to do something secretive or nefarious, can’t seem to get her to stop talking and leave. Or another moment sees Morris’ Caroline mid-interrogation asked to close her eyes and “throw herself back.” Though Poirot means to throw her mind back, Caroline instead flops her body backward against the chaise lounge. They are exaggerated moments that make the dinner guests seem goofy and Poirot, in comparison, even more sensical.
But that exaggeration occasionally bleeds into the more serious moments, pushing some characters into a tone more akin to melodrama or a scene out of the murder-mystery parody “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Even director Marianne Savell, in her director’s note, acknowledges the balance needed between highlighting Poirot’s brilliance and focusing on the heart and humanity of the humans connected to the murder. But if you look at Justine Yu-Ping Davis’ Lucia Amory, wife to Sir Amory’s son Richard, you can start to see how balance isn’t quite achieved.
At the beginning of the play, we watch as she very clearly feigns illness — basically putting the back of her hand to her head and sighing loudly — in order to be alone in the library to carry out something she doesn’t want everyone else to see. We soon after watch as she sneakily pours poison into her own coffee only to be interrupted before she can drink. The reasoning behind both are revealed later in the play, but that exaggerated take on the character undercuts the serious reasoning why Lucia needed to be alone and why she was ready and willing to put poison to her lips.
Savell has a tough task, navigating a dense 1930s play with a runtime that easily tops the two-and-a-half-hour mark. There are multiple times during “Black Coffee” that, were it a novel instead of a play and each scene a chapter, I’d likely find myself counting pages, searching for Poirot’s return. Some of this is on the script itself, like the fact that a delightful, flirty tryst between Poirot’s nerdy but dutiful assistant Hastings (Nathan Brockett) and Sir Amory’s niece Barbara (Claire Marx) is mostly relegated to late in the play where it feels like things are, or should be, winding down. But other moments feel hurt by poor pacing and some awkward staging whenever the full cast is squeezed onto Taproot’s thrust stage.
The end result is a production that feels like it comes up just shy of reaching its full potential. That said, Sloniker’s Poirot will absolutely be entertaining enough to pull you through this production. You can bring a little notebook and become Hastings yourself, writing down discoveries as you try to solve the mystery alongside Poirot. It’s a testament to both this story and its production that it can truly keep you guessing right up until the final reveal. Even if it can be a bit of a slog to get there, there’s something all too satisfying about finding the answer to a murder mystery. So long live the genre’s resurgence.
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