Agatha Christie was not the greatest British playwright of the 20th century, but she was one of the most prolific and possibly the most successful. In addition to her best-selling novels, she turned out a seemingly endless series of plays and adaptations. "Black Coffee," set in 1934, is early Christie, and its characters are sketchier and the dramaturgy has less finesse than in her later efforts, but it remains an entertaining divertissement. It is also unique in that it posits the harnessing of atomic power at a time when that seemed impossible.
Sir Claud Amory (David Hunt Stafford) has discovered a formula for unleashing atomic power, which could be worth millions—or it could destroy the world. When the formula is stolen from Sir Claud's safe, he's desperate to recover it. Attempts to unmask the thief result in murder, blackmail, and various sorts of skullduggery, with an ample supply of suspects. Sir Claud's son (Corey Rieger) is in financial straits and is behaving strangely. His Italian wife (Shelby Kocee) is, unbeknownst to him, the daughter of a notorious female thief and confidence woman, and she's dogged by an oily Italian doctor (Randy Vasquez) who's threatening to reveal the secrets of her past. It's up to the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Tom Dugan) to use his "little gray cells" to unravel the mystery and reveal the thief and murderer.
Director Bruce Gray gives the piece a solid, workmanlike production, though his handling of the comedy is sometimes heavy-handed: Some not-very-believable business with a ball of yarn is pushed beyond the point of diminishing returns. Dugan is a clever but egocentric Poirot, and Nicholas Hosking is amiably dense as his sidekick, Colonel Hastings. Kocee contributes a stylish turn as the beleaguered wife, but Stafford seems curiously benign as the supposedly tyrannical Sir Claud.
Jeff G. Rack contributes a lavishly detailed set, with the polish and finish the production sometimes lacks, and Joyce B. Ferrer provides the handsome 1930s costumes.
Presented by Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills.
July 7–Aug. 1. Wed.–Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (310) 364-0535. www.theatre40.org.