KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 16, 1992
This Lettice is no vegetable. Miss Lettice Duffet is an irrepressible English tour-guide with a passion for history, theater and embellishment. She is working at Fustian House, which she considers to be “the dullest house in England.” The history of the place being so terminally boring, she finds it necessary in her tour talks to go “further and further,” as she says, “from the shore of fact down the slipstream of fiction.” That is, until she is discovered by Lotte Schoen, her rule-abiding, tough-as-nails superior at the Preservation Trust, who promptly fires her.
The remainder of “Lettice and Lovage” is devoted to the unlikely alliance between these two eccentric women, their developing friendship and their ultimate crusade against all that is Mere, ugly, small-minded and second-rate in society.
Both Lettice and Lotte are lovers of words. So, of course, is Tony Award-winning playwright Peter Shaffer, best known for his brilliantly provocative “Equus” and “Amadeus.” But this time, Mr. Shaffer goes a bit overboard.
His first act is unnecessary, and his third is interminable. The verbiage becomes excessive. Shaffer seems to have OD’d on lovage, the green that is a primary ingredient of a medieval drink called Quaff, heralded here as “both herbal and verbal.” One can imagine the divine Maggie Smith, for whom the role of Lettice was written, wrapping her sultry voice around every syllable and making it sing. But Julie Harris, despite her five Tony awards and her impressive theatrical background, is just not expansive enough for the role, either vocally or personally.
And while she seems small in the role, the play seems small in the Civic Theater. Although there are thirteen cast-members, it’s really a two-person piece. Most of the action is between Lettice and Lotte. The play demands a level of intimacy. In this cavernous hall, we don’t feel with or for these characters. They are just too remote, in every sense. They’re wonderfully drawn, but they keep their distance.
Roberta Maxwell is fine as Lotte, but the miking was very inconsistent on opening night, and the women fairly screamed at each other throughout the first act. The size of the house prevented any subtlety, despite Michael Blakemore’s caring direction.
I am a big fan of playwright Shaffer. And I like both Harris and Maxwell as actors. Blakemore is legendary for his staging of “Joe Egg,” “Noises Off” and “City of Angels.” But the whole did not equal the sum, etcetera. I came away disappointed, certainly not provoked and stimulated as I usually am by a Shaffer play. I was not feeling Mere, merely tired and unmoved. Maybe if they’d given me a quaff of that Quaff…..
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.