Review of “Lettice and Lovage” at the Ghent Playhouse
by Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray
Gail Burns: People have been talking about this wonderful community theatre production, so we just had to squeeze it in. And am I glad we did.
Larry Murray: And those who read this will be able to as well since it is playing at the Ghent (NY) Playhouse for one more week. Theatre people know about the comedy Lettice and Lovage which revolves around a deceitful docent who livens up her historic tours of yet another of England’s fusty* and dusty historic homes with tales from her own imagination. But anyone who has been held captive on a “historic” tour that is dull as dishwater will love the twists and turns that follow.
The playwright Peter Schaffer has always had a knack for picking colorful and interesting characters, from Mozart in Amadeus to the stableboy who blinded horses in Equus. Barrington Stage did his wonderful Black Comedy a couple of seasons ago, and I have to admit that Schaffer is one of my favorite playwrights.
Gail: I am not sure I’d rank him that high on my list. His plays, especially Equus, tend to be over wrought, and the plot is the thing I like the least here. When I reviewed the 2003 and 2004 Shakespeare & Company productions I wrote: “…[The play is] rather predictable and formulaic in that oh-so-wacky way television has trained us to expect. I enjoyed the laughs…but I would have enjoyed them more if they had supported a more serious purpose than another when-I’m-an-old-lady-I-shall-wear-purple-carpe-diem-you-can’t-take-it-with-you slab of silliness.” And “…playwright Peter Schaffer…has used the captivating character of Lettice Douffet as a way to hold the audience’s attention while he rails about everything from ugly British architecture to stifling work environments, and celebrates everything from Shakespeare to Tudor cuisine.”
I enjoyed it though because I saw it in the Spring Lawn Mansion, which played the role of Fustian House* exceedingly well, with Tina Packer and Diane Prusha in the title roles. But you saw the original London production starring Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack.
Larry: After having worked with Maggie Smith in the double bill of The Private Ear/The Public Eye in 1962, both of which were in his preferred form of three character plays, he wrote Lettice and Lovage. Schaffer says he had Dame Maggie in mind to play Lettice Douffet when he wrote this for her back in 1987. You can hear the rhythms of the great actress in her lines. That is why it was so delightful to hear a slightly different rhythm and tone from her successor in Ghent, the equally riveting Johnna Murray (no relation to me). Her partner, employer, friend and victim on stage has a role that is no less critical to the play’s success, Lotte Schoen, played by the equally adept Joan Coombs.Gail: The danger for a community theatre mounting such an obvious star vehicle is that you need a bona fide star. While she may not be a Dame of the Empire, Murray is one of my favorite actresses. I almost wrote “one of my favorite local actresses” but realized that if she carried an Equity card and trod the boards in Williamstown or Pittsfield I would love her just as much. I have seen her play everything from Sister Aloysius in Doubt to Amanda in Private Lives to a green “mortgage” giant, a stuttering pig, and a cat who turned out to be Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor in various Pantos, and she is always, always excellent.
Here she sports an impeccable British accent, gets to show off her equally impeccable French (in real life she is an elementary school French teacher) and even manages to make a stuffed cat look good on stage.
Larry: Her vibrato singing of La vie en rose at the opening of Act Two has to be the funniest combination of a Piaf tremulo and bathroom gargle I have ever heard.
Gail: While I am certain that Murray’s availability and willingness to play Lettice was a deal-maker for Ghent green-lighting this production, I have no doubt that the show would have been equally delightful if Murray and Coombs had switched roles. It was great fun to see Coombs not cast in a stock “old lady” role, even if here she was saddled playing the straight. Lotte is not an easy role, but Coombs made it her own. I surely lift my glass to her as well.
Glenn Barrett is charming as Mr. Bardolph, the pro bono lawyer (here the British terms solicitor and barrister are used) Lettice has selected solely on the basis of his Shakespearean name. He goes from frustrated to fascinated as she draws him in her world of historical fiction.
Nancy Hammell also has a nice turn as Lotte’s hysterically repressed secretary, Miss Framer, who is the ultimate anti-Lettice.
Larry: Hammell’s performance really got me laughing, she was less constrained by her character and her contributions helped make Lotte appear to be a no-nonsense supervisor. For all the subtle humor involved, you can’t just cast wannabe actors in the role of Lettice or Lotte, both roles must be polished and performed to perfection or the whole theatrical concept would likely collapse under the weight of so many earnest words. In fact the whole production was both fresh and new while hanging together as well as the original London production which I saw on my last trip there in 1988. It’s on a smaller scale of course, but the dedicated folks in Ghent show what marvels even a small community based theatre company can produce when given the chance.
Gail: Set and lighting designer Bill Camp has outdone himself – managing to fit three (count ’em, three!) sets on the tiny Ghent stage. Having only seen this play staged in an historic house with a sweeping staircase, I couldn’t imagine that that effect could be adequately recreated in a small house, but Camp and his crew have done I magnificently.
Ben Heyman’s sound design included the most realistic stage recreation of an urban “house phone” system I have ever heard. And Joanne Maurer’s costumes are perfection, as always.
Larry: As with all Peter Schaffer plays, there is quite a bit to the plot, and it seems he rewrote the ending when it crossed over to America for its historic Broadway run. Instead of blowing up modern architecture, the two historians decide to do mock tours of them. Schaffer himself felt it was a less contrived way to end the play, and it does leave everyone on a high note.
Gail: I was unaware of that change, and might have preferred the original, which gives the character of Lotte more weight. I have pondered why Shaffer titled this play Lettice and Lovage instead of Lettice and Lotte. Certainly it is a vegetarian sort of title, Lettice herself remarks on her name sounding like that of a rather bland vegetable, but the herb lovage seems to play a fairly minor role in the proceedings. The title must be looking at the proceedings through Lotte’s eyes and seeing Lettice herself and the lovage in her quaff – a faux Tudor beverage of Lettice’s own creation that enables Lotte to let down her hair, or actually to throw it off entirely, in Act II – as two key ingredients to the major change she makes in her life.
Larry: In the world of the performing arts, the community theaters, which are all volunteer operations, often outperform their professional equals, and this happens a lot in Ghent. The attention to detail of the sets, lighting and amenities sets a pretty high bar for others to emulate, and they should. The Ghent Playhouse has been around for a long time, and it has renewed itself year after year because people really care about it.
Gail: Tom Detwiler who directed this enticingly eccentric production is celebrating his 20th year with Ghent. He has directed eleven of the annual Pantos among many other things. Some people don’t have real jobs that long.
Larry: Finishing up its run on the 31st of March, there is still time to try and book some seats for this gem. I think Gail and I agree you won’t be sorry you made the trip. This is about as good as not only community theatre, but any theatre can get.
* The word “fustian” means “pompous or pretentious talk or writing” and there was also a real John Fustian, who was a yeoman-merchant in Wiltshire, England in the 16th century, making the name of the house both plausible and appropriate to Lettice’s shenanigans therein.
—The Ghent Playhouse.org Presents Lettice and Lovage, Written by Peter Schaffer, Directed by Tom Detwiler, Produced by Nancy Hammell, Set and Lighting Design by Bill Camp, Sound Design by Ben Heyman, Costumes by Joanne Maurer, Stage Managers Nancy Hammell, Paul Leyden.
Cast: Lettice Douffet – Johnna Murray; Surly Man – Paul Leyden; Lotte Schoen – Joan Coombs; Miss Framer – Nancy Hammell; Mr. Bardolph – Glenn Barrett; Tourists – Stephanie Guelpa, Jack Steffek. Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with two intermissions. March 15-31, 2013.
Lettice and Lovage plays at the Ghent Playhouse, Route 66 and Town Hall Place, Ghent, NY. 800-838-3006