By Karen Isaacs
Lettice & Lovage is a play with a “cute” and confusing title that somehow reflects the play itself. Its current production at Westport Country Playhouse (through June 17) shows what is best in the play and also its weaknesses.
The original production of the play by Peter Shaffer (Amadeus, Equus and more) starred two of the great actresses of the British stage: the better known Dame Maggie Smith (as Lettice) and Margaret Tyzack. It was a tour de force for Maggie Smith.
Lettice Duffet is an eccentric older woman of limited means. The play opens with her giving a tour of one England’s National Trust properties, the very dull Fustian Manor House. Not much happened there except that Queen Elizabeth I almost fell down the stairs. The house itself is not very interesting either. The tourists are bored. But in a series of brief scenes, we see Lettice slowly expand on the facts about the house until they are scarcely recognizable. Each time we see the stories become more dramatic (to the point of impossibility) and additional stories appear. Of course, some tourists find her loose regard for the facts disturbing.
The personnel officer of the Trust visits and observes one of the more dramatic tellings of the house’s stories. Lettice is called on the carpet. But she doesn’t arrive in Charlotte Schoen’s office (another older, single woman) chastened or apologetic. Lettice is her own flamboyant self. She continually derails the conversation with stories of her mother, an actress who translated Shakespeare into French and toured the French countryside with a troupe of all women.
Nevertheless she is fired.
After the intermission (Acts 2 and 3 are combined), Lotte shows up at Lettice’s basement flat (equally flamboyant). Something Lettice had said about older women, has struck a chord with Lotte. She comes to offer the possibility of a job as a tour guide on one of London’s tourist boats. Lettice insists they toast with a liquor she has made from lovage (an edible member of the parsley family used in Elizabethan times.) The two women drink quite a bit and each reveals something about her life. Lotte had studied architecture and had been in love with an engineering student; they had planned on blowing up one of the examples of 1950s architecture which they viewed as particularly horrendous. They even called themselves the E.N.D. (Eyesore Negation Detachment). But she backed out and the romance ended. She was so upset, she failed her exams and instead became a personnel officer.
By the time we get to the third act, it is months later and Lotte and Lettice have become fast friends; except Lettice is charged with trying to murder Lotte. I’ll not spoil the scene with giving you the details of what happened, why or how.
It ends with the two of them going into the tour business: conducting tours of the most hideous examples of modern architecture.
Even with a last minute illness that forced a change in the central role, Mark Lamos has cast this excellently and directed deftly. But even he can’t overcome some of the problems.
First is that the play seems just too long and with too much talk. It is under two and half hours but it seems longer. The night I saw it, the production started late and the intermission seemed overly long. Still we were out of the theater by 10:20 (for an 8 pm show).
Why does it seem long? It’s just that each scene and each idea is over-talked.
So let us turn to the plusses of this production. Certainly some of the idea that Shaffer focuses on are still very current. Older women (and men) often have difficulty finding employment. Older women’s economic circumstances are more limited and precarious than men’s. Must of the architecture of the last 70 years is particularly graceless: huge concrete squares and rectangles often replacing much interesting older buildings. Prince Charles made a controversial speech in which referred to some of the post-WW II buildings as monstrous carbuncles.
But these ideas get lost in the extraneous activities of the eccentric Lettice and soon, Lotte.
Kandi Chappell stepped into the daunting role of Lettice late in the rehearsals after medical issue cause the original actress to withdraw; she will be fine. She has done a splendid job with a very long part that requires panache. She has it. Mia Dillon gives one of her regularly fine performances as Lotte. You see her liberate herself in so many ways.
Paxton Whitehead almost steals the entire show with a brief appearance as Lettice’s lawyer who must defend her on the attempted murder charge. It is hilarious, as you see him try to understand what went on and what is going on.
John Arnone has given us set that conveys the inner character of Lotte, Lettice and Faustian House. Jane Greenwood must have had a great time designing Lettice’s eccentric costumes.
Overall, Lettice and Lovage gives you fine performances in a play that you may find very enjoyable or a little long, depending on your mood.
It is at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets call 203-227-4177 or visit Westport Country Playhouse.