‘Lettice and Lovage’
Through May 17
The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street
British playwright Sir Peter Shaffer wrote “Lettice and Lovage” specifically for his friend Dame Maggie Smith.
At the heart of this comedic and sometimes poignant tale is Miss Lettice Douffet, a highly dramatic expert on Elizabethan cuisine and medieval weaponry who finds difficulty fitting into the modern world. Lettice is a role in which Smith shone, winning wide praise for the 1987 London premiere and a Tony Award for the 1990 New York production.
Now audiences can see Shaffer’s comedy at Bethesda’s Quotidian Theatre Company. And while there isn’t a titled international star in the lead, local actress Jane Squire Bruns gives a formidable and heartfelt turn as the eccentric Englishwoman who can’t endure the “mere,” and has adopted her late mother’s motto as her own: ”Enlarge! Enliven! Enlighten!”
The play traces the unlikely relationship between two ladies who share an interest in history and distaste for modern architecture. Both are single and of a certain age, but similarities end there.
In the farcical first act, we find Lettice in action. As the docent of historic Fustian House, the dullest great house in England, she cannot resist but to enliven her tours. With each successive group of visitors (played by the same quartet of quick-changing actors), she increasingly embellishes the house’s history until it no longer resembles the truth whatsoever. As her stories become more fanciful, the once fidgety tourists transform into a rapt audience.
Eventually the Preservation Trust hears about their rogue employee and Miss Lotte Schoen (Leah Mazade), a gray bureaucrat with a penchant for facts, is sent to inspect. Ultimately Lettice is sacked and neither a very dramatic exit nor a stack of fan letters from satisfied Fustian House visitors alters the fact.
But Lotte was struck by Lettice’s spirit and several months later she drops in on Lettice, unannounced, at her modest basement apartment to give her a generous letter of recommendation. Truly touched, Lettice breaks out a celebratory carafe of homemade medieval “quaff” (booze mixed with an herb called lovage), and the women bond. Lettice speaks of her equally eccentric late mother, who acted the male leads in the Shakespeare plays that her troupe performed in France. A seriously buzzed Lotte shares her past including stories of an aborted career in architecture and a lost love. It’s here where Bruns and Mazade are at their best and the play at its most engaging.
At three hours, it’s a long evening (or matinee), but director Louis Pangaro keeps things at a quick enough pace. He sets the scene with a projection of Fustian House’s great carved wooden staircase, and effectively contrasts images of historical English architecture with steely, impersonal modern edifices. Also thrown in are projected portraits of royals who met untimely deaths including David’s simple yet haunting sketch of a decidedly unglamorous Marie Antoinette en route to the guillotine.
In the play’s final act, set in the same basement flat, Lettice reluctantly answers questions posed by her appointed lawyer Mr. Bardolph (an excellent John Decker), about an assault that took place offstage. It seems that Lettice and Lotte’s friendship has developed into a weekly night of drama and fun where the women act out the great executions of British history. But the last time things got out of hand. Here the play devolves into silliness, though it ends with an effective feel-good ending in which a love for things old and beautiful triumphs.