Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Black Coffee and The Comedy of Errors

Zoran Kovcic and
Rebecca Cureton

Hedgerow Theatre has long made a specialty of presenting Agatha Christie's cozy English mysteries, and Christie's 1930 play Black Coffee contains nearly all the ingredients that have made her work so popular. If you're a Christie fan, you know what to expect—and Hedgerow delivers it with high spirits.

It's all about a murder, of course—but first, there's what Alfred Hitchcock liked to call a McGuffin. Here, it's the formula for a forerunner of the atomic bomb, created by Sir Claude Amory (you knew there'd be a "Sir Claude" in this, didn't you?). We're in the parlor of his stately home outside London, where Sir Claude has decided to give a speech about his invention to his family and guests. First he locks all the doors, but nobody gets suspicious. Then he complains "This coffee tastes bitter," but still nobody gets suspicious. Then the brilliant detective Hercule Poirot shows up and discovers that Sir Claude has died from whatever was in that coffee, and that the McGuffin has disappeared. Finally, everybody is suspicious.

Sure, it's corny. The plot machinations, the functional but far from scintillating dialogue, and the opening scene that lays out the characters and their motivations in an obligatory manner won't be to everybody's taste. And Christie's habit of simultaneously wallowing in and mocking her characters' provincial prejudices can get tiresome. But about halfway through act one, once Sir Claude's body is off the stage and Poirot begins his interrogations in earnest, the plot starts to get absorbing. And from that point on, Black Coffee becomes a nice little romp. Like Christie's best work, it seems original and familiar at the same time, and it's a kick to see Poirot fit all the puzzle pieces in place.

Penelope Reed's sure-handed direction keeps everything running smoothly. (However, the accents are hit and miss, and not just from the supposed Brits; there are two Italian characters who sound like they've traveled from Italy via the Paoli Local.) The performances are all fine, but a few stand out, including Susan Wefel as a snooty dowager and Maggie Cummings as a vivacious flapper who pursues Poirot's sidekick Captain Hastings (the sturdy Dave Polgar). And Zoran Kovcic, who has played Poirot on the Hedgerow stage many times over the last two decades, holds Black Coffee together with the authoritative air of a veteran sleuth who has seen it all but will see it through until he sniffs out the killer.

This cup of Black Coffee could have been more stimulating, but it goes down easy.

Black Coffee runs through November 13, 2011, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices are $22 to $29, with discounts for seniors and children, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-565-4211, online at or in person at the box office.

Michael Jansen and Philip J. Vonada
Villanova Theatre is presenting a production of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors that takes the word "comedy" in its title way too literally. Director Shawn Kairschner's production is trying hard to be wacky and hip, but in the end, it just feels trying.

This version of The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare's tale of two sets of identical twins and the confusion that they inadvertently cause, is heavily edited, losing more than an hour of its running time and clocking in at 90 minutes. That's not necessarily a bad thing; I've seen good Shakespeare that was even shorter. But when you cut out the dialogue and replace it with time-wasting nonsense—like adding unfunny chase sequences solely to show actors running around screaming for several minutes, or introducing the minor character of a soothsayer with a dance number done to the tune of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell On You"—then you can't be said to be serving the play well, if you're serving it at all.

Villanova's production gives you a lot to look at. Charlotte Cloe Fox Wind's costumes borrow from multiple cultures, so we see people dressed as cowboys, trappers, and fishermen; one man wears a sombrero, while one woman wears go-go boots. And John Raley's set design is full of off-kilter angles and oddly shaped doors and windows; panels open up like the joke wall on "Laugh-In," allowing the actors to pop out and deliver their lines. There's a lot to take in. But it all seems too busy. And so is the rest of the production, which is stocked with actors who mug impressively but rarely scratch the surface of Shakespeare's rich characters. Nearly every scene pummels the audience with clever pop culture references, but it all seems unfocused and unentertaining.

Most of the performances are far too exaggerated and lacking in nuance. But two actors rise above the din: Michael Jansen and Philip J. Vonada. The Comedy of Errors usually requires a large suspension of disbelief, as the actors picked for the roles of the twins are usually so dissimilar that you just have to just assume that the other characters really believe that these guys look alike. But Jansen and Vonada, with their rotund bodies, bald heads, and resonant voices, really do seem like they could be twins. And, though their performances are broad, they borrow expertly from vaudeville tradition; you'll see traces of Harpo Marx and Curly Howard in their go-for-broke attitudes.

Villanova's Comedy of Errors is done with a lot of energy, but it wears out its welcome quickly.

The Comedy of Errors runs through October 9, 2011, at Villanova Theatre, located in Vasey Hall on the Villanova University campus in Villanova, Pennsylvania. Tickets prices run from $21 to $25, with discounts available for seniors, students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 610-519-7474, online at, or by visiting the box office.

-- Tim Dunleavy

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