"Black Coffee," Long Beach Mainstage Theatre

All photographs courtesy of Michael Hardy Photography.

It’s a domestic squabble with global implications. Though it deals with international intrigue, the tone is domestic and intimate.

1930, a distinguished physicist’s library, 25 miles outside London. A stolen formula for – gasp! – an atomic bomb. The murder of said physicist. Leads abound. An Italian doctor, a suspect because he’s foreign. The physicist’s son, low in self-esteem and desperate for cash. His wife’s up-to-now unknown connection with international espionage. The physicist’s personal secretary, too smug for his own good. Motives? The usual - Love, money, prestige, and blackmail. Opportunities? A ton.

Only one person can sort out the loose threads, literally and figuratively, a fastidious Belgian detective by the name of Hercule Poirot. And he does, in glorious fashion, in Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee, directed by Mitchell Nunn for the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre.

Call it an English procedural, a thriller, a love story, a romantic comedy. It’s all those. Mostly, though, call it a fantastic production.

For starts, it’s the setting. The thrust stage puts us smack dab in the middle of the action. We admire the period perfect costumes (Donna Fritsche, costume design) and sets (Greg Fritsche, set design). Music (‘Phie Mura, sound design) heightens expectations and threats. The room isn’t just the stage, it’s the space we share with the actors as we watch the drama unfold.

Mostly, though, it’s the acting. Nunn’s casting and direction was deft and inspired. First, he made the characters come to life. Second, his pairings of characters made for a memorable production.

Patrick Peterson’s Richard Amory, the son of the recently deceased Sir Claud Amory (David Clark Hutchsion), broods and squirms; appropriate behavior given the fame of his father. He struggles to provide for his exotic, foreign-born wife Lucia (Jessica Plotin). Plotin’s Lucia also broods, but for different reasons. Circumstances lead us to think she’s in love with someone else; but that’s not true. Henry Weaver’s Dr. Carelli is the someone else. He has baggage but we don’t know what kind. Blackmail, maybe, international terrorism, perhaps. Is he even a doctor?

Hastings (David Vaillancourt) is Poirot’s sidekick. He’s also the straight man in one of the most unlikely comedy duos imaginable. He couples nicely with Barbara Amory (Hayley Jackson) who sparkles as a flapper.

And there’s Rick Reischman’s Hercule Poirot. His depth of character astounds. He is meticulous and rambunctious with Hastings (David Vaillancourt). He is all business with Inspector Japp (John Russell). He does not suffer fools gladly (Dr. Carelli and Sir Claud’s personal secretary, Edward Raynor - Lee Samuel Tanng.) But his best moments are his role-his-eyes tolerance of the stream of consciousness chatter of Caroline Amory (Martha Duncan), Sir Claud’s sister.

Before there was James Bond, there was Hercule Poirot. One had a body to die for (a blunt instrument, as Judy Dench’s M said of Daniel Craig), one had little gray brain cells to solve crimes like a computer. Until recently, I preferred Bond because of his righteous and clever propensity to violence, all in the name of a global good. The world being what it is at the moment, though, I’ll take Poirot.

Performances are 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and, beginning January 21, 2 p.m., Sunday. The show runs until February 2018. Tickets are $14 - $24. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim Street, Long Beach, CA. 90804. For more information, call (562) 494-1014, option 1, or visit here.

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