When the curtain rises on the second act of “Lettice and Lovage” at the Westport Country Playhouse, who should be sitting center stage but Paxton Whitehead. The unique actor, who’s graced many a WCP production, is a pleasure all over again. His appearance as Mr. Bardolph sends this pedestrian rendering of Peter Shaffer’s comedy into overdrive.
But, alas, it’s just about too late. Whitehead, who played the same role on Broadway when Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack (both Tony winners for their performances) brought the work over from England in 1990, plays a befuddled lawyer. Too bad he’s not a doctor who might have resuscitated the evening which, by combining the script’s first and second acts makes the show seem talkier and more enervating than it need be.
We start with Miss Lettice Douffet, a woman of theatrical mien (her mother ran a French Shakespeare company) in her job as tour guide for one of England’s duller historic homes. Anxious to loosen things up, she tells tourists increasingly fantastic tales of past events, such as the time Queen Elizabeth I almost fell down the grand staircase, only to be rescued by the lord of the manor in one great leap.
Lettice’s embellishments come to the attention of her Preservation Trust employer, Lotte Schoen, a woman of “gray integrity,” who promptly fires her. Pangs of conscience soon surface and Lotte, an aspiring architect, decides to help Lettice by recommending her for a position on a tour boat. Eventually, with the help of flagons of an alcoholic drink laced with the herb lovage, the two become buddies, leading to jolly re-enactments of historical martyrdoms.
More we cannot tell, except to note that the action also involves Lotte’s mousy secretary, Miss Framer, the aforementioned Mr. Bardolph and a cat named “Felina, Queen of Sorrows.” Despite the humor, playwright Shaffer has a serious point to make: London’s modern buildings are destroying not only the city’s ancient skyline but its hold on history.
What truly concerns Shaffer, however, reflects other works of his: “Equus,” “Amadeus,” “The Royal Hunt of the Sun.” In all, conflicting characters represent head vs. heart, intellect vs. emotion. Lettice is passionate and flamboyant; Lotte is rational and staid.
One trouble: “staid” wins out over “flamboyant.” In too many moments, the actors are like living statues, barely moving.
As Lettice, Kandis Chappell is still feeling her way, understandably. A last-minute replacement when the original actress took ill, she first did this role more than 20 years ago. Under Mark Lamos’ curiously laid-back direction, her Lettice lacks larger-than-life eccentricity. As Lotte, Mia Dillon captures the character’s steel. As Miss Framer, Sarah Manton is nondescript in a part that calls for timidity not disappearance.
But then there’s Whitehead with his grasp of English intonations, his timing, his way with words that can make whole scenes out of “pinioned” or “hurled.” Indeed, his ability to color language is on a par with Edith Evans, famous for her deconstruction of “handbag” in “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
John Arnone’s scenic design reflects the production. Both over-decoratedÂ and underdone, it aspires to a level it doesn’t reach.