Lettice & Lovage – Review by Tom Holehan

If you ask me – Tom Holehan

Shaffer Revival Opens Westport Playhouse Season

A shaky but somewhat satisfying revival of Peter Shaffer’s comic play, “Lettice and Lovage” has opened the 86th season (is that possible?) of the venerable Westport Country Playhouse. The new season, under Artistic Director Mark Lamos, will also include the 2016 Obie Award winner, “Appropriate”, the provocative “Sex with Strangers” and Shakespeare’s classic, “Romeo and Juliet”. There is definitely something for everyone this season.

Written in 1986 as a vehicle for Maggie Smith, Peter Shaffer’s creation of the grandly theatrical Lettice Douffet, sort of an English version of America’s Auntie Mame, lives by the credo, “Enlarge! Enliven! Enlighten!” Lettice (Kandis Chappell) is currently employed as a docent giving rather dull tours of one of England’s less-interesting historical homes. One day, Lettice takes it upon herself to freely embellish the history with stories more fitting a bodice ripper and immediately becomes a hit with her audiences. When her rather dour boss, Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), hears complaints about Lettice, she has no choice but to fire her. Feeling guilty Charlotte then pays Lettice a visit to offer her another job and a friendship is born. The fun in “Lettice and Lovage” is seeing these two polar opposites learn and grow from each other.

As is sometimes the nature of live theatre, actors have to be replaced at inopportune times. So it was that the crucial role of Lettice at WCP had to be replaced less than a week before opening. Much credit, then, must be given Ms. Chappell for soldiering on under difficult circumstances. That said, the role was still not on firm footing at the performance I caught (after opening night) and Chappell has a ways to go before the part, as written, comes to full flourish. In addition, Mr. Lamos has seemed to slow down the proceedings where far more energy and pace is needed. “Lettice” is a rather talky piece to begin with and also “veddy English”. Many of the arcane historical references, in particular, will go over American heads anyway, so why not get through them quickly?

Mia Dillon is always a consummate professional and earns many laughs even playing the “straight role” here. But it is Westport Playhouse favorite, Paxton Whitehead, who really brings the play to life in act two when he makes his appearance as Lettice’s solicitor. I’ve commented more than once in this column that any script, any production, is immediately improved by the addition of Mr. Whitehead in the cast. A theatrical treasure with a long list of Connecticut credits, Whitehead is a delight In “Lettice” with his pitch-perfect comic timing, mellifluous voice and brilliant, button-upped befuddlement.

The major set (of three) designed by John Arnone for the production is Lettice’s theatrically inspired basement apartment. Arnone has included wonderful fabrics, tapestries and furnishings that highlight the particular mindset of its inhabitant but the addition of an onstage bathtub seems odd even for Lettice. Jane Greenwood’s costuming does a good job defining the major personalities of each character. (After a long career in the theatre, Ms. Greenwood won her first Tony Award in last Sunday’s ceremony.) In all, a mixed bag for this Shaffer revival which will no doubt become more cohesive and fluid as the run continues.

“Lettice and Lovage” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through June 17th. For further information, call the box office at: 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.