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Parkside Players bring Agatha Christie murder mystery to life

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A good cup of coffee shouldn’t taste bitter, especially when it’s poured from a fancy silver carafe and served in fine English china.

By the time famed scientist Sir Claud Amory utters his final words, “The coffee has a bitter taste,” his secret formula for a revolutionary new explosive is already missing, and an urgent call to legendary detective Hercule Poirot has come too late.

For when the moustached Belgian sleuth arrives at Sir Claud’s sprawling country estate, the patriarch’s soul had already left his body, and he is found sitting in his library, slumped over in a chair.

Now, the entire household is under a cloud of suspicion.

Agatha Christie would’ve been proud. The Parkside Players gave a smashing debut performance Saturday evening, and will keep serving up their own rich blend of Christie’s “Black Coffee,” now on stage weekends through March 4 at Grace Lutheran Church in Forest Hills.

The original 1930 stage play was Christie’s first attempt at playwriting, and Parkside’s talented cast does a bang-up job bringing her crime mystery to life through colorful, authentic characters.

Clever Hercule Poirot is played to perfection by Parkside’s Jim Haines — accent, arrogant attitude, and all — and proves that the detective is an expert at getting people to talk, and eventually confess.

Poirot and longtime sidekick Captain Arthur Hastings are suddenly faced with two mysteries they must solve: finding the missing formula, and catching Sir Claud’s poisoner.

Follow Poirot’s astute deductions as he tries to discover which of the mansion’s occupants may have tampered with the scientist’s after-dinner coffee. Was it a family member, the maid, or perhaps the enigmatic Dr. Carelli, the suspicious “foreigner” who seems to appear out of nowhere?

“The real mystery is why Agatha Christie’s ‘Black Coffee’ isn’t more well known.” said director Mark Dunn. “Featuring her most beloved sleuth, Hercule Poirot, ‘Black Coffee’ features a cast list full of standout performances. This show will keep your ‘little grey cells’ working overtime as you try to navigate the clues, laughs, and twists to figure out whodunit.”

Dunn, who also delivers a nuanced performance as Dr. Carelli, previously directed Parkside’s “You Can’t Take It With You” (2016) and “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (2012). He last appeared onstage in 2012’s “Done to Death.”

Poirot immediately smells a dirty rat, so, he uses his trusty gut instinct and exercises his “little grey cells,” to solve Sir Claud’s murder, as he does many other cases. Haines showcases how that famous clue-based and logical deduction process through “order and method,” is done.

Indeed, there’s more here than meets the detective’s trained eye. Twists and turns of the plot keep you intrigued, even during intermission.

Untangling a web of lies, deceit, and greed is what Poirot does best.

Could the killer be daughter-in-law Lucia Amory, the tortured lovely? Or is it her husband Richard, Sir Claud’s only son, who was the one who brought his father’s cup of joe to his study?

At first blush, Lucia seems like the main suspect. Played skillfully by Kimberly Simek, her character always seems on the verge of despair or falling ill, or both — perhaps to deflect suspicion with pity.

And aside from both being Italian and sharing vague backgrounds, what is Lucia’s connection to Dr. Carelli? Is it true that they were old flames back in the day?

You’ll also find out who witnessed Lucia’s odd behavior after the hot black coffee was poured, and right before Sir Claud had that lethal sip — and why she hides that poisoned cup after his death, when she thinks she’s alone.

Simek said she’s excited to return to the Parkside stage after previously appearing in “Cabaret” (Helga), “You Can’t Take It With You” (Hessie), “The Pajama Game” (Gladys), and others.

Bringing a refreshing joie de vivre to a cast of mostly solemn Christie characters, Tiffany McCue’s vivaciousness lights up the stage in her role as the outspoken and slightly man-crazy Barbara Amory (niece of Sir Claud and his spinster sister Caroline), who rebels against her aunt’s stuffy Victorian ways.

Last seen on the Parkside stage as Gay Wellington in “You Can’t Take It With You,” Lori Ann Santopetro serves up a delightfully British performance as the uptight Caroline, who is constantly shocked by her niece’s unbecoming behavior and lack of morals.

It’s easy to lose yourself as you become engrossed in the labyrinth of intricate plotting, as Christie does so well. And police-procedural buffs will get an interesting lesson in old-school detective work and vintage medications and poisons.

When a murder mystery draws to a close, Poirot usually reveals his description of the sequence of events and his deductions to a room of suspects, typically ending with the culprit’s apprehension, “for in the long run,” says Poirot, “either through a lie, or through truth, people were bound to give themselves away...”

Nearly 100 years since his creation, Christie’s beloved sleuth Hercule Poirot is still considered one of the greatest fictional detectives of all time.

Updated 6:29 am, February 23, 2017
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