Lettice and Lovage by Peter Schaffer. Directed by Tom Detwiler.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Imagine the scene – time as if suspended."
Lettice (short for Leticia) Douffet enlargens people’s minds as she enlivens history for them while enlightening the unilluminated millions, or dozens anyway, who come to Fustian Hall to learn about one of the stately homes of England. Fustian Hall is actually just as dreary as its name and Lettice has to do a great deal of enlivening to make it all worthwhile. She does so, that is, until Lotte Schoen, her boss whom she’s never met before, shows up and fires her for fabricating history. That is definitely against the government-run agency’s policies. What follows this action on Lotte’s part is the story of this 1990 play, written for Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzak - they played it in London and then came to Broadway for nine months in this play.
At the Ghent Playhouse Johnna Murray and Joan Coombs are taking over the task of enlightening our minds, enlargening them as two wildly different women come to vigorous and exuberant life on the local stage. I have liked, and I hope praised, both of these actresses before. They have delivered wonderfully in a variety of roles. I even believe I once said that Murray could never top a specific performance. Well, kick me down the stairs, please. This role, Lettice Douffet, is the one Murray was born to play.
No one has a broader or more compelling grin than Ms. Murray. She literally lights up the stage and at least the first nine rows of the theater with it every time she flashes it. In this play, one where her character trembles on the brink of tragedy in each and every act (there are three), she uses her wondrous facial expression to bring home the good humor of a good fairy trapped in the body of a woman of wonders. As Murray plays the character she could pick up a carving knife and cut out your heart, then smile at you as she hands you both heart and cutlery and leaves you willing to confess to a matter of self-mutilation. She and her smile are that potent.
She wears absurd costumes, designed here by Joan Maurer, with a perfect élan. She makes a dramatic costume change in Act One into a moment of personal triumph, something an actress might do at an awards ceremony upon winning top prize. She seems to combine the finest British theatrical personality, a Maggie Smith or a Kay Kendall, with the finest American physical shtick ala Mary Tyler Moore or Carol Burnett. Add to that a fine vocal quality, smart accent work, lively singing, perfect French and pointed way with the comic delivery of each and every line and speech and there, alive and well and living in a basement, is Johnna Murray’s Lettice Douffet. You really couldn’t ask for much more.
Luckily the three other principal players bring their talents to the stage as well. Nancy Hammell provides the schlub factor with her mouse of a secretary, Miss Framer. Framer is the ideal foil for Lotte Schoen. She has to learn to knock and serve and perform all sorts of other chores with a decisiveness that Framer cannot maintain. Hammell is funny and charming in the part.
Glenn Barrett plays an attorney advocating for Lettice in an assault, or attempted murder, trial. His way into the character is through his belligerence and his way out of that temperament is through rhythm, sound and a dance that seems almost inevitable. Barrett performs the various transitions from one Bardolph to another in just the right fashion allowing his character to become the man Lettice always believed him to be: Shakespeare’s Bardolph, Falstaff’s friend.
And finally Joan Coombs rattles the cage that is the all-nerves, no-heart Lotte and brings forth a matronly butterfly who can flit but never flatlines. Schoen is a dry-bones character, all powder and careful attention. At any moment she could ignite, go up in flames, but having done so she would re-emerge as that same old butterfly. Coombs plays her sternness to the hilt and when she actually lets down her hair this fine actress permits her character to transform into a picture of Eloise at the Plaza, to be the child she has denied herself for her entire life.
Tom Detwiler, the director, has found a perfect pair in Murray and Coombs. Under his watchful eye they play off one another with an almost magical strength and clarity. You can hear the sparks; you can smell the herbing a perfect chef would bring to the party. Detwiler allows his cast the room to create their characters and takes the upper hand in presenting them to their audience.
This is a very funny play; it comes complete with audience belly-laughs. Costume designer Joanne Maurer provides each actor with just the right clothing and even Murray’s odd apparel feels just right for Lettice making her visually into her mother’s daughter. Bill Camp, designing sets and lights, has provided a picture perfect picture frame and within its borders the comedy plays out beautifully.
No comedy is truly successful without its pains and this one is no exception. Murray, Coombs and company with Camp, Maurer and Detwiler on the far side of the production values are giving us an exceptional treat this month with laughter and anguish and laughter again. I would see this play every weekend if I could. I can’t, though, so there is a seat for you. And if I was you I would snatch it up right now before someone else gets it. Someone will.
Johnna Murray, Joan Coombs, Nancy Hammell; photo: Daniel Region
Glenn Barrett and Johnna Murray; photo: Daniel Region
Lettice and Lovage plays at the Ghent Playhouse, right off of Route 66 west of Ghent, NY through March 31. For tickets and information call the box office at 1-800-838-3006 or go on line at www.ghentplayhouse.org.