by Hugh Hunter
In her remarks, Director Noelle Nettl notes that “Lettice and Lovage” (1987) by Peter Shaffer is seldom performed. Despite the efforts of Ms. Nettl and her talented cast, the show now running at Allens Lane Theater helps explain why.
“Lettice” is essentially a two-woman show, and I did love the opening act. Set in old Fustian Hall amid medieval armor, Lettice is a tourist guide for The Preservation Trust. She notices the yawning disinterest of her first guests, and she is not the sort of lady to take things lying down.
Like a great improvisational artist, Lettice plays off the reactions of others as she regales a series of tourists with an array of increasingly bold and fanciful tales. Lotte, a ringer for The Preservation Trust posing as a tourist, eventually confronts Lettice about her gay disregard of historical facts.
Shaffer wrote “Lettice” with actress Maggie Smith in mind. Formidable Dame Maggie went on to win the Tony in 1990, (They may have been afraid not to give it to her). In the process, Smith probably won undue acclaim for the script itself, because after its charming opening act, “Lettice” collapses into a talky and overlong drama of relationship.
As Lettice, Donna McFadden (an acting teacher at Villanova) is a pleasure to watch, full of sly and impish looks. Lettice has a mission to “enlarge, enliven and enlighten.” She detests what she calls “the mere,” unimaginative people and the dull gray of modern England which she contrasts with the glory of its past.
When the past is itself gray, Lettice colors it up. Claire Golden Drake is fine as Lotte, a doughty establishment woman who turns out to have all sorts of unresolved problems. She falls under the spell of Lettice’s creativity, as does Mr. Bardolph (Don Gimpel), a conventional lawyer whom Lettice easily reduces to silliness.
Playwright Shaffer reprises themes from his hit play “Amadeus.” In that work it is Shaffer himself who disregards the known historical facts to imagine a relationship between Mozart and Salieri in which the great artist is menaced, then destroyed by a jealous and uninspired man.
In “Lettice and Lovage” the main character sees herself as a superior person just like Mozart. But here Shaffer combines artistic pridefulness with post-colonial nostalgia. Lettice believes England’s dull present is an insult to its glorious past, just as she feels personally stifled by mediocrity.
Lettice is so quixotic, there may be an element of satire, even self-mockery, in Shaffer’s script. What can be more “mere” than baseless claims to exceptionalism? And after a dramatic and amusing opening act, it is up to the actors to keep you entertained. As good as McFadden and Drake are, that is a heavy burden to carry.
Allens Lane is located at Allens Lane near McCallum Street. “Lettice and Lovage” will run through March 22. Reservations are available at 215-248-0546 or www.allenslane.org.