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Campy touch not over the top

The director's black and white set, performers and mood, plus the actors' melodrama, aren't too much for Black Coffee.

Published January 15, 2006

If you go see the Agatha Christie mystery Black Coffee at Stage West Community Playhouse, be on time: A preshow bonus sets the scene for director Peter Clapsis' interpretation of the 1930s play as a postwar, 1940s film noir detective thriller.

(And plan to be there a while, too. On Friday, the show ran 2 hours, 50 minutes.)

Clapsis designed the set in high-contrast black and white, dressed his actors in shades of black and white, and even had makeup artist Libby Campo and her crew put an eerie white powder on some faces to tone down the flesh colors. The effect usually works but can be startling, especially when a white-faced actor with a Florida-tanned neck makes an entrance.

Still, anyone who has seen those black and white Fred MacMurray-Barbara Stanwyck flicks in the theater or on Turner Classic Movies will recognize the style and appreciate the intent.

Clapsis also adds a campy touch, letting his players occasionally go over the top with melodramatic delivery and stylized moves.

Somehow, it works, despite the overly talky second act scene in which Detective Hercule Poirot examines the clues. That passage could easily be cut in half and retain its punch, but that's the writer's fault, not the local company's.

Black Coffee is classic Christie: Early on, the wealthy scientist Sir Claud Amory (David Stenger) is murdered by someone who poisoned his coffee. The culprit appears obvious, but everyone looks suspicious after Belgian detective Poirot (George Dwyer) arrives to figure out who really dunit.

Dwyer is a dream of a Poirot, all crisp business and dramatic gesture, with a wink at the very idea of his character. Clapsis must be hugging himself for casting Dwyer, a relative newcomer to Stage West. Dwyer's confidence and poise is contagious; the cast seems energized by his presence.

An equally fortunate find is Patricia Villegas as the victim's chattering maiden aunt, Miss Caroline Amory. She's a delight in every scene, doing each line with perfect cadence and emphasis. Besides, she cries better than any performer I've ever watched.

The dependable Jessica Nichol turns in still another fine performance as the beautiful Italian bride of Sir Claud's financially strapped son, Richard Amory, played with cool detachment by Mark Berlinger. Ms. Nichol's Lucia is warm and sensuous and completely convincing - and guilty looking.

For brassy laughs, there's Danielle A. Flury's Barbara Amory, who puts suspiciously aggressive romantic moves on Poirot's compliant sidekick, Capt. Arthur Hastings (a delightful William Myers), and brings suspicion of guilt to herself.

Michael Benson's stuffy Tredwell the butler and Dwight L. Wolter's Edward Raynor, Sir Claud's secretary, seem obvious suspects. And the rasping Italian Dr. Carelli, played with a Peter Lorre lurk and a Transylvanian accent by Daniel Brijbag, has "villain" written all over him.

Mystery fans will enjoy it all (watch closely Poirot's moves in the big expository scene near the end), and theater fans will revel in the performances.

Be aware, there are ugly ethnic slurs about Italians that were acceptable in the 1930s but seem a tad tacky (except for the Sopranos and Corleones) in the 21st century. Also, the play is totally tasteful, but there's still a squirm factor for kiddies simply because of the show's length.


Black Coffee runs weekends through Jan. 29 at Stage West Community Playhouse, 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill. Shows are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15, reserved seating. Box office is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and an hour before each show. Call (352) 683-5113.

[Last modified January 15, 2006, 01:47:20]

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