The English are indeed different. Peter Shaffer’s lighthearted “Lettice & Lovage,” currently at Westport Country Playhouse, illustrates this difference by its clever wording — an aspect of English drawing room humor that Americans sometimes find difficult to digest. For example, take the play’s amusing title. The vegetables alluded to suggest an English herb-garden. It follows that when aromatic greens are combined with those less flavorful, we have a tasty salad which is geared to epicureans — in this case, those who are familiar with 16th century English history and its fading legacy.
We are first introduced to middle-aged Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell), a tour lecturer at Fustian House. This colorful woman tries her best to attract the interest of a group of American tourists who have become bored with schlepping around England’s more popular landmarks. Realizing that viewing the same swords and shields at every stop is not very exciting, Lettice decides to invent stories about the mansion’s Grand Staircase. Her latest version concerns Queen Elizabeth I who supposedly tripped over her skirts while attempting to descend it. Her Majesty was caught in mid-air by the mansion’s flying host who leaped to her rescue in the nick of time. Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), a conservative, tight-lipped official with the Preservation Trust, arrives on the scene after receiving a complaint from an irate tourist. An embarrassed Lettice is then called down to her office and is unceremoniously fired.
The action takes an unusual twist when the flamboyant lecturer dramatically laments about fading, English culture. Because the women share common ground, Charlotte (Lottie) is invited to Lettice’s basement flat — complete with cat. Its bare ceiling pipes are draped with heavily embroidered, velvet fabrics — suggesting former stage curtains. A small, kitchen table is tucked into one end of the room. A carved, wooden throne — an inherited theatre prop, is positioned in the center, and rather oddly, an old-fashioned bathtub, which serves no purpose in the play, completes the picture. The set, designed by John Arnone, reminded me of New York City’s Greenwich Village where many years ago, I also noticed the oddity of a bath tub situated in the living room.
Despite opposite personalities, the two women become great friends. They meet regularly to partake of an ancient, alcoholic beverage containing lovage (symbolic for their love of England) and enjoy acting out significant episodes in England’s romantic past — including famous executions.
If you get the English references and jokes, things begin to make more sense. While it’s not prudent to reveal any more details, it’s safe to say that when befuddled barrister (Paxton Whitehead) finally appears in Act III, and is commissioned to parade around the room while sounding a series of military drum rolls, the play neatly rolls to an end.
“Lettice & Lovage is under the direction of Mark Lamos, and while English farce is simply, silly nonsense, all of the actors are highly entertaining. For your interest, if you never saw lovage, samples of this herb are on exhibit in the theatre’s lobby.
Plays to June 17 Tickets: 203-227-4177
This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” June/2017