THEATER REVIEW: Ghent actors add spice to loquacious ‘Lettice & Lovage’ script

‘Lettice & Lovage’/ Ghent Playhouse

“LETTICE & LOVAGE.” No, it’s not about green salad stuff and its sexy uses. It’s “Lettice” with an “i” (substitute for Letitia) plus an herb that she adds to her customary brew. The brew is served in sequined goblets, and quaffing it unleashes the delicious, witty, silly stuff of this play.

Even if the title is unfamiliar, you probably know of Peter Shaffer as the author of “Amadeus” and “Equus.” “L & L” is something else entirely.

The plot involves two unlikely middle-aged friends who find that they share a passion for bloody history and a horror of modern British architecture. (Don’t ask.) Shaffer wrote it as a tour de force for Maggie Smith.

Just as singers hesitate to sing “Over the Rainbow” ever since Judy Garland did so, actresses need extra chutzpah in order to perform a role written for, and formerly inhabited by, Maggie Smith. Yes, she, the matriarch of Downton Abbey and gobs of even more prestigious roles.

I sincerely hope that I am not suffering from local-yokelism when I say that Ghent’s fearless Johnna Murray need not have worried. Let Maggie worry.

Murray’s Lettice is a fresh leap into that fantasy place where we all would like to go if we weren’t so dull and boxed-in-grown-up. Well… maybe one could wish the actress had an authentic British accent and fewer cute nose crinkles, but Murray gets this character! A very wordy script flows from her with unhesitating ease, as does Lettice’s lovely, excessive physicality—the body draped over a mini-chaise, the arms floating skyward, the quick change of position to better listen, listen, listen.

After a murky opening atmosphere at the edge of the stage and a clever staircase climbing up the wall of the theater, set and lighting designer Bill Camp jolts the environment with the ugliest, most banal office known to mankind and gives it the harsh white light it deserves. It’s perfect! It says everything about the coming-out of its occupant, Miss Schoen. (That office would drive anyone to bloody fantasy.)

Joan Coombs as Miss Schoen is a gutsy foil and partner to Lettice’s shenanigans. Coombs owns Act II. (She is crucial lovage.) Indeed, Lettice/Murray would be intolerable without Schoen/Coombs.

Nancy Hammell as the secretary, Miss Framer, is less satisfactory. If you were lucky, you saw her a while back more appropriately cast as the madwoman of Chaillot. Obsequiousness probably does not come naturally to actresses, although Hammell seemed to enjoy her repeated exits from the office, backing out–humbly–as before royalty. A neat bit.

Maybe “the bit” actually comes from director Tom Detwiler. Hard to say; but Detwiler mitigates the wordiness of the play throughout with knowing behavioral humor and good use of the spaces.

Glenn Barrett as Lettice’s lawyer, Mr. Bardolph, is hilarious–sucked slowly, inexorably from intelligent, lawyerly demeanor to the ta-diddy-diddy-dum of Lettice’s world.

Peter Shaffer lets his actors down a bit in Act III, but not very far.

“Lettice & Lovage” runs, skips, floats and jigs through March 31. Get more info at www.ghentplayhouse.org.

 

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