Oh, To Be in England — Back When…
“This life is what you make it.” Marilyn Monroe
Lettice Douffet would certainly subscribe to this philosophy. She is a lady caught in a time warp: her body resides reluctantly in present-day England, but her mind and her soul nest somewhat uncertainly in a world long deceased, that of Queen Elizabeth I (The Virgin Queen, Gloriana or Good Queen Bess), and Charles I — the good old days of the divine right of kings. She is also the dominant character in “Lettice & Lovage,” a quirky, somewhat prolix comedy by Peter Shaffer that recently opened at Westport Country Playhouse. Lettice uses words — and plenty of them — to color what she sees as a drab world now ruled by the “mere.” The effect of her loquaciousness is, at times, delightful, and at others, soporific, resulting in an evening of theater that seems to move at two different speeds.
Directed by Mark Lamos, with a set by John Arone that at first is beguiling, then austere (a bureaucratic black box), then somewhat over-stuffed (why the bathtub?), “Lettice & Lovage” opens with a tour of the Grand Hall at Fustian House, Wiltshire, led by Lettice (Kandis Chappell, who took on the role late in the rehearsal process). Actually, there are three tours: the first bores the tourists because, well, the house’s history is boring. Lettice, sensing this, adds some rhetorical flourishes to the second tour and by the third go-round the house’s history has become part fairy tale, part Shakespearean tragedy (one senses the second and third tour scenes could have been combined to make the same point). Alas, attending the final tour is Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), an official of the Preservation Trust who does not find Lettice’s flights of fancy very endearing — they’re “fake news” from the past.
Lettice is hauled onto Charlotte’s Preservation Trust office carpet in a scene that runs altogether too long, ending with Lettice being dismissed from her position. In response, Lettice renders a reenactment of the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots (don’t ask — it’s a delightful moment, logic be damned). Having second thoughts, which may or may not be believable for the audience, Charlotte appears at Lettice’s flat with a job reference and the two bond when it’s revealed that Charlotte, a frustrated architect, detests what is being done to historic London. With that, Charlotte lets down her hair (well, it’s more than that, but I won’t reveal the sight gag).
When the lights come up on the second act, they reveal Mr. Bardolph (Paxton Whitehead), Lettice’s solicitor, sitting in Lettice’s flat with a briefcase on his lap. His appearance elicited both applause and laughter from the opening night audience, for Whitehead, a Playhouse favorite, brightens whatever production he’s in, especially if he’s called upon to be befuddled. This he certainly is as a plot twist is revealed and unraveled and he is asked to provide drum rolls to accompany yet another beheading (again, don’t ask, just enjoy).
If you buy the premise of Lettice and Charlotte being drawn together for the purpose of — well, let’s just say it involves a lot of historical angst, agony and pontificating — then you might sit comfortably in your seat for two hours (with one intermission). If you don’t, there are a lot of fidget opportunities. Chappell and Dillon do their utmost to bring their characters to life, even though both characters are severely overdrawn, and Whitehead delivers as the somewhat flummoxed lawyer. However, a playwright should know (or be told) when enough is enough, when the audience has gotten the point and it’s time to move on. That’s a difficult task when one of your main characters is inclined towards florid verbosity.
“Lettice & Lovage” runs through June 17. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.