This review of The Parkside Players' production of Agatha Christie's Black Coffee at Grace Lutheran Church was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in The Schoenberg Spotlight.
Written by Agatha Christie
Directed by Mark Dunn
The Parkside Players
Grace Lutheran Church
103-15 Union Turnpike
Forest Hills, New York 11375
The Parkside Players used to be a well-respected community theater company featuring challenging productions with competent actors. However, in recent years, under the company's current leadership, the success and professionalism of the respective productions have, unfortunately, gone downhill. It has even reached a point where the company has decided to discourage the attendance of critics by not offering them a second comp for a guest, which is standard industry practice. Applause! Applause!, the publication I sometimes write for, refused to review Black Coffee for that reason. However, since I feel a critic should reflect the eyes and ears of paying audience members, I decided to pay for my own ticket to review the show for The Schoenberg Spotlight.
Black Coffee is a dark horse play written in 1929 by Agatha Christie. It already creaked at that time and Christie's literary agent discouraged her from doing anything further about it. It never had a New York Stage debut. However, it saw the light of day on the London stage in 1930 and 1931, the same year it was produced as a movie. Black Coffee was also the first work of Agatha Christie to be produced in a non-English movie - a French version in 1932. The play was first published by Alfred Ashley & Son in November 1934. It was republished with minor revisions by Samuel French in 1952. Past reviews of the play have generally been unfavorable. The Times' review of the December 9, 1930 production declared, "Mrs. Christie steers her play with much dexterity, yet there are times when it is perilously near the doldrums." Ivor Brown's review of the second production wrote in The Observer, "If you are one of those playgoers who are eternally excited by a corpse in the library and cross-examination of the family, all is well. If not, not. To me the progress of detection seemed rather heavy going."
The Parkside Players made the decision to give Black Coffee life once more. You will need a gallon of black coffee to stay awake during this play, which has not aged well. What passed as sophisticated detective techniques back then were already stale at the time Agatha Christie admitted in her Autobiography that the play was "a conventional spy thriller...full of cliches." She did give enough clues for the audience to solve the mystery regarding where the formula was hidden but not a sufficient number of clues to figure out who committed the murder without the help of Hercule Poirot, the great Belgian detective.
The stage scenery, period music, and lighting successfully recreated the atmosphere of an English country home circa 1930s. While some of the costumes were on the mark, Inspector Japp, dressed in a sweater and a badge, was an anachronism. Jim Haines got the accent of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot quite right and Eugene Sullivan aced the role of the corpse. The Parkside Players could not rescue Black Coffee from its pedestrian plotting. Agatha Christie, the author, would greatly improve over the years as a mystery writer of both plays and novels. I hope to see the same improvement at The Parkside Players in years to come. If things remain as they are, I would think twice before seeing another production there.
Black Coffee runs through March 4, 2017. Tickets cost $17.00 ($15.00 for seniors). You can make reservations by calling 516-520-9474 or 718-353-7388. For more information, visit www.ParksidePlayers.com.