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‘Lettice and Lovage’ Review: Longing to Lead a Larger Live

A flamboyant tour guide helps an imperious bureaucrat let loose in Peter Shaffer’s play.

By Terry Teachout
June 8, 2017 4:27 p.m. ET
Westport, Conn. 

 https://www.wsj.com/articles/lettice-and-lovage-review-longing-to-lead-a-larger-live-1496953626

A year after his death, Peter Shaffer has receded into the shadows of forgotten fame. It scarcely seems possible that the playwright who gave us “Amadeus” and “Equus,” two of the biggest theatrical hits of the postwar era, should now be so ill-remembered on this side of the Atlantic, but it makes unhappy sense of a sort. Most of his plays are big machines that require large and costly casts to bring off, which makes them dicey for Broadway and riskier still for even the most ambitious regional theaters. In any case, his old-fashioned brand of serious middlebrow theater has fallen from favor: “Amadeus” and “Equus” are the only major plays by Mr. Shaffer ever to have been revived on Broadway, and neither revival was more than modestly successful. So it’s great news that “Lettice and Lovage,” Mr. Shaffer’s last hit, is now being performed by Westport Country Playhouse. Written in 1987 as a vehicle for Maggie Smith, it’s a chokingly funny farce enriched by a savory touch of seriousness, and Mark Lamos’s smart staging never puts a foot wrong.

 

In “Lettice and Lovage,” we make the acquaintance of Charlotte (Mia Dillon ), an imperious bureaucrat whose shell of melancholy prissiness is smashed to bits when she makes the acquaintance of Lettice (Kandis Chappell), a splendidly flamboyant tour guide whose job it is to tell bored tourists about “the dullest house in England.” Instead of sticking to the colorless story of Fustian House, Lettice starts rolling her own anecdotes, the wilder the better, and Charlotte, her supervisor, is forced to fire her. Naturally, the two women become friends, and this being a farce, their friendship soon attracts the attention of the police. I’ll leave it at that, save to say that Charlotte profits no end from knowing the much-larger-than-life Lettice, who is (in Lettice’s own words) “the absolute antithesis of the Mere.”

Part of what makes “Lettice and Lovage” such a satisfying comedy is its underlying seriousness. In a way, it’s a comic version of “Equus,” for both plays share a common theme: They’re about deeply inhibited people who long to lead larger lives. Might Mr. Shaffer have had his own long-secret homosexuality in mind when he took up this subject? Or was he writing more generally about the paralyzingly self-conscious gentility of the English middle class of his youth? Whatever his motives, he employed his theme very, very well. “Lettice and Lovage” ought to be much more widely known to American audiences, and this production, the first revival that I’ve had occasion to review since I saw the play at Chicago’s Court Theatre in 2006, is worthy in every way.

The role of Lettice, created by Dame Maggie, is the plummiest of plum parts, and Ms. Chappell wears it like a perfectly tailored, fabulously elaborate period costume. It’s pure pleasure to catch the loony glint in her eye as she elaborates with quick-rising implausibility on the dull history of Fustian House. Ms. Chappell was forced to step into the part a week before the show opened when the actor originally hired by Mr. Lamos fell ill, but you wouldn’t have known it from her opening-night performance, which was totally assured. As for Ms. Dillon, she’s nothing short of ideal as Charlotte, whom Lettice drags into the warm spotlight of emotional extravagance. For the smaller but pivotal role of Lettice’s lawyer, Mr. Lamos offers a deluxe piece of casting: Paxton Whitehead, who played the part on Broadway, reprises it here, and does his usual masterly job of embodying stiff-upper-lip befuddlement.

As for John Arnone’s two sets, the Grand Hall of Fustian House and Lettice’s cheap but fancifully decorated two-room basement flat in London, to call them Broadway-worthy would be understating the case. Indeed, one might say the same thing of the production as a whole, which Mr. Lamos has directed with his usual blend of theatrical flair and satisfying faithfulness to the author’s wishes. Were this “Lettice and Lovage” to transfer to Broadway as is, I can’t imagine it being anything other than a crowd-delighting success.

Lettice and Lovage

Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, Conn. 
$30 and up, depending on availability, 203-227-4177/888-927-7529,
 
closes June 17