Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of LETTICE & LOVAGE at the Westport Country Playhouse
Through June 17th
There is a distinct difference between American comedy and British comedy. I am being in no way ethnocentric when I say that my general predilection is toward American comedy. That doesn’t mean that I dislike British comedy. In fact, I love the comedy of Monty Python. I just love the comedy of Mel Brooks a little bit more. I also love a good farce when it is done well. Coming to Westport’s production of Lettice & Lovage, I didn’t know quite what to expect. I knew it was a British comedy and I knew it had some farcical elements. Other than that, however, I was newbie to the play.
I am pleased to note that after seeing the play, I have been transformed from a naïve newbie to an ardent devotee. It was absolutely, positively delightful! Who’d have “thunk” it?
Well, if truth be told, I should have known. Lettice & Lovage was written by one of my all-time favorite playwrights, Sir Peter Shaffer, who wrote two of my all time-favorite plays, Amadeus and Equus, both of which I had seen when they opened on Broadway in the seventies. It was written for the great actress Maggie Smith and opened on Broadway in 1990.
Can I describe it in three superlatives? Yes! As the character Lettice notes about acting and entertainment, it should “Enlarge! Enliven! Entertain!” (I love alliteration.) And that is exactly what Lettice & Lovage does.
The play centers around the somewhat eccentric and eclectic Lettice Douffet, a tour guide at one of England’s historic houses. The problem is that nothing of import has ever really happened at the house. So in order to entertain the tourists and make her job less humdrum, she calls upon her acting skills (which she inherited from her mother) and embellishes the house’s history. One embellishment leads to another until her narrative script becomes pure fantasy. As another British writer once said, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!”* Her egregious but wonderfully creative lies eventually hit the mainstream public including one Charlotte Schoen, the stern, no-nonsense head of HR at the house. In a hilariously theatrical confrontation, Ms. Schoen ends up firing Ms. Douffet. But like everyone who comes into contact with Ms. Douffet, Ms. Schoen cannot get her out of her mind and actually finds another job for her. They become fast BFFs who get together on a regular basis and drink one of Ms. Douffet’s homemade potent potions called Lovage, comprised of a mixture of herbs and alcohol. Their relationship degenerates (or maybe elevates) to role playing where they act out the historic deaths and executions of famous monarchs. Fast forward to Act II and we find Ms. Schoen in the hospital with an ax wound to her head and Ms. Douffet about to be tried for attempted murder of her best friend. While I will not spoil the end, I would say in a Columbo-esque type of denouement, the truth, which can be stranger than fiction, does come out much to everyone’s benefit.
Kandis Chappell was absolutely superb as Lettice Douffet (especially considering the fact that she was a last-minute replacement for the ailing Patricia Conolly who was originally cast in the role). She was wacky, flaky but at all times charmingly memorable and certainly charismatic. No less superb was her co-star and foil, Mia Dillon (who Pillow Talking loved in Cloud 9) as Lotte Schoen, wearing the mantle of a hard-core, officious, corporate honcho with an underlying thirst for excitement and a heart of gold. I loved the arc of her character from the British upper-crust to a Lovage-drinking, ax-wielding role player. Veteran theatre actor, Paxton Whitehead, pulls a Clark Gable, reprising his role in the original Broadway production from back in 1990. (Clark Gable played the lead in a film called Red Dust in 1932 and then reprised the role in a John Ford remake, Mogambo, in 1953.) Mr. Whitehead (whom Pillow Talking loved in Westport’s What the Butler Saw) is a master at playing comedy and farce. His performance as the lawyer was side-splittingly brilliant. Rounding out the talented cast was another veteran from What the Butler Saw, Sarah Manton, who was perfect as Ms. Schoen’s assistant, Miss Framer.
Mark Lamos did his usual awesome job of directing, demonstrating his particular ability to take a British play like Lettice & Lovage (originally crafted as a star vehicle for Maggie Smith) and subtly updating and transforming it into a relevant, hilarious tour de force that even a plebian like myself could enjoy.
And speaking of my plebian tastes, I went online and looked up Lovage. Here is what Wikipedia, the ultimate source for everything, had to say about it: Lovage, Levisticum officinale, is a tall perennial plant, the sole species in the genus Levisticum in the family Apiaceae, subfamily Apioideae, tribe Apieae. Umm, well, whatever it is, it works in the play Lettice & Lovage that you absolutely must see before it’s taken off the chopping block.
*Sir Walter Scott said it.
She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. — Zelda Fitzgerald, The Collected Writings
To be bored leads to feelings of emptiness, frustration, fatigue, and apathy. It also brings about low energy, agitation, and lack of engagement. German philosopher and psychologist Theodor Lipps said, “Boredom is a feeling of unpleasure [sic] arising out of a conflict between a need for intense mental activity and lack of incitement to it, or inability to be incited.”
Just perform a quick internet search and you’ll find endless suggestions for how to spice up your life. You can take almost anything from “drab to fab” from an outfit or your hairstyle, to your home or your landscape. There are even articles for how to dress up a concrete wall or a pile of old tin cans! Because frankly, who likes boring anyway? I don’t and I know plenty of others who don’t either. And without a doubt, neither does a certain Miss Lettice Douffet.
You’ll have the opportunity to meet the highly unconventional Lettice in Peter Shaffer’s Lettice & Lovage at Westport Country Playhouse, which is anything but a mere few hours of pure, unadulterated delight. And like its characters who embracingly consume a very potent lovage (herbal) cordial, you’ll feel as if you’ve been slipped the same enjoyable mickey.
Eccentric, eloquent, and enchanting Lettice believes in the code, “Enlarge! Enlighten! Enliven!” yet somehow she’s found herself in a job she doesn’t enjoy and one that no one enjoys her in. She’s the tour guide for the fusty Fustian House, a sixteenth-century hall with no history of note. There is nothing exciting about its architecture or design and nothing very interesting has happened there. That is until Lettice decides something should have. When her tourist charges all but fall asleep on their feet while she delivers her pat (and boring), well-rehearsed monologue, she elects to spice things up with a few embellishments – okay, they’re patent untruths. But lo and behold, the masses are enlivened!
One good turn leads to the next – and with each new tour she adds a bit more pizzazz – she enlarges her tall tales to the point of outlandish nonsensicality! But she justifies it that she has served to enlighten them, transporting them from the Fustian lethargy and she’s now delirious with the power her storytelling has given her. After all, her mother was an actress with a wildly colorful past. It matters not that there may be a few disgruntled sticks in the mud who question her historical accuracy – Lettice is on a natural high (she doesn’t even need her cordials)!
That is, until the prickly, persnickety, punctilious Charlotte (Lotte) Schoen, her boss and the head of the Preservation Trust, comes to check things out. Lotte is not amused, in fact, she plain won’t allow Lettice’s fairytales to sully the good name of Fustian House nor the Trust, so Lettice is abruptly discharged. What’s a woman of a certain age to do?
Sometime later, Lotte, whose guilt has festered long enough, shows up unannounced at Lettice’s theatrically overdone basement apartment with a new proposition for Lettice’s employ; and oddly enough they also become fast friends. What’s more, Lettice has quite a strange effect on Lotte, whose gray world transforms like Dorothy’s entrance into the bursting palette of Munchkinland. But it’s not without complications – and soon the law’s involved – for peculiar reasons you’ll just have to see to believe. Enter barrister Mr. Bardolph to get to the bottom of the very hairy situation.
Lettice may not realize it but her flair for the dramatic, exaggerated, and altogether histrionic falls square into the field of positive psychology. We know that people thrive as they are moved to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, as they cultivate their best selves, and as they enhance their experiences in all areas, including work, play, and relationships. Kandis Chappell (who at the eleventh hour replaced an ill Patricia Conolly) sumptuously captures the essence of this extravagant character with tremendous flourish. It’s no wonder the name Lettice means “joy” because that’s exactly what she spreads throughout the story and through the audience. She’s the sort of friend everyone wants – the one who is in perpetual motion and who dares to do the things you’d never hope to consider, let alone try.
Mia Dillon (whom we saw and loved in Hartford Stage’s Cloud 9) is pure delight as her polar opposite, Lotte. But stiff and repressed, but she’s also the tiger waiting to be freed from her cage. She’s potential energy waiting to be released; the water behind the dam. She needs only a push, a teeny, tiny step toward the edge – and voila! she’s gotten her groove on. If only she’d show some of that to her secretary at the Trust, the intimidated and nervous Miss Framer, played by a wonderful Sarah Manton. Miss Framer’s entrances and exits are as comical as her poor door knocking skills (I adored Manton in Westport’s What the Butler Saw last season).
And last but certainly not least is the one and only Paxton Whitehead as Mr. Bardolph, Lettice’s stuffy lawyer who nearly falls out of his seat when he learns of the outrageous antics of the quirky, mismatched pair of spinsters. He’s the straight man to their zaniness who adds some incredibly comical moments of his own. There’s bountiful laughter to be had just in his facial expressions and choking pauses.
Mark Lamos, Westport’s Artistic Director, directs a stellar cast in this lovably manic work that is both over-the-top, yet not more than it should be. Each character, from the leads to the supporting, to the Scene One tourists (local actors Richard Mancini, who also plays the Surly Man, Travis James, Kara Hankard, Michele S. Mueller, Robert Peterpaul, Hermon Telyan, and Danielle Anna White) shines in a multitude of ways. Shout outs also to John Anone for spectacular scenic design which, like its colorful characters, is attentive to every important nuance of Shaffer’s work. Jane Greenwood’s costume design brings out the true flavor of each character, and I especially loved the device of the tourists changing clothes onstage to show each new crop of bored Fustian sightseers. Excellent work by Philip Rosenberg as Lighting Designer, John Gromada as Sound Designer, Michael Rossmy as Fight Director, and Karin White as Props Master (I just loved Felina the cat!).
Take a lesson from Nietzsche: Is life not a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves? And if you will, take it from me – you’ll be anything but bored at Westport’s Lettice & Lovage!