at the Shubert Theatre

Lettice & Lovage, Peter Shaffer’s comedy decrying escalating ugliness and vulgarity in the modern world, opened its road-show engagement here three days after the Bulls-victory “partying” that left a wake of ruined businesses and ruptured lives. Sitting in the Shubert Theatre watching Lettice Douffet and Lotte Schoen, the play’s heroines, rant and whine about bad British architecture as a symptom of the erosion of traditional values, it was impossible not to find the characters–and their creator–more than a little out of touch. We’re faced with genocide in Eastern Europe, slaughter in South Africa, wanton rioting in America’s cities–and these folks are worried about architecture?

Lettice and Lotte are supposed to be out of touch; that’s the point of the play. But the play’s out of touch as well. Shaffer’s tunnel-vision view of modern society’s ills and the preciously extravagant language he gives his characters make Lettice & Lovage increasingly tedious over its three-act stretch.

It begins amusingly enough. Lettice Douffet is an eccentric middle-aged lady whose limited means conflict with her unlimited imagination. The daughter of a Shakespearean actress whose cross-gender specialties were Falstaff and Richard III (she used the same pillow for her belly and her hump), Lettice shares with the Bard a theatrically vivid disrespect for historical facts. Employed to lead tours through a stately Tudor mansion, she embellishes the official history of Fustian House (“the dullest home in England”) with her own crowd-pleasing fantasies; this brings her the unwanted attention of her superior, a tough little terrier named Lotte Schoen, who promptly fires her.

That’s act one, and it’s pretty funny; Lettice’s attempts to “enlighten”–that is, lighten up–her public make for some amusing monarchic mythology, and her showdown with no-nonsense Lotte is a fine piece of work: Lettice’s comic eccentricity runs aground on the reality that she’s an aging woman who’s suddenly jobless. But from there on it’s all downhill, as Shaffer manipulates his characters into increasingly silly postures. Feeling sorry for the woman she fired, Lotte visits Lettice and finds her an unlikely soul mate. Though they’re opposites in temperament and upbringing–the half-French Lettice loves theater and fantasy, while part-German Lotte wants her beauty three-dimensional and solid–they’re united in their disgust at, yes, the ugly architecture of post-World War II Britain. (The same architecture Prince Charles is always railing about–though recent revelations suggest he should pay less attention to other people’s houses than to his own home.) After a series of diversions–including Lotte’s unbelievable admission that she was once a would-be urban terrorist, and an accident that leaves Lettice temporarily under suspicion of attempted murder–the play concludes with the women forming an Eyesore Negation Detachment whose mission is to protest grotesque buildings.

Buildings are to Lettice & Lovage what horses were to Shaffer’s far superior Equus: a symbol of the need for beauty and passion in the coldly efficient modern world. But Shaffer is far less adept at expressing serious meaning in comedy than he is in tragedy: a bad-looking building is a much less powerful image than horses with their eyes gouged out. And the spiritual crisis faced by Equus’s psychiatrist carries a resonance that the dithery Lettice’s social alienation lacks (though Shaffer gives her a painful climactic monologue that almost makes the rest of the play worth sitting through).

Part of the problem may be inspiration. Shaffer got the idea for Equus from a news story about mutilated horses; Lettice & Lovage was suggested by a remark from Maggie Smith that her age prevented her from playing anything but “freaks.” That complaint’s unattractive self-pity permeates Lettice & Lovage, which was written for Smith and in an obviously contrived way: it’s a salad made up of bits of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Travels With My Aunt, and Room With a View, earlier and better vehicles for Smith’s brilliance in eccentric roles.

Smith would surely fill in the play’s holes with her dazzling manner; but Julie Harris gives the role a gentle, wounded melancholy that almost smothers its comic extravagance. She’s playing Lettice’s hidden fears, not the nutty surface under which she hides them. (Harris is also not very convincing as an Englishwoman of French descent; her English accent is virtually nonexistent, and she pulls a boner when she mispronounces forte, the French word for strength, as “for-tay.” Roberta Maxwell is mediocre as Lotte, and MaryLouise Burke epitomizes bad road-company overplaying as Lotte’s secretary. On the plus side there’s John Horton as Bardolph, the stiff-upper-lip attorney who’s swept into Lettice’s fantasy world; his brief, beautifully styled scene brings the show’s biggest laughs.

Also admirable are Alan Tagg’s wonderfully detailed sets–gloomy old Fustian House in the first act, and Lettice’s bric-a-brac-packed basement apartment in the last two–and the layered-for-lunacy costumes designer Frank Krenz has given Harris to wear. But the production as a whole is soggy and flat; though Michael Blakemore is credited as director, the show feels like it was blocked from Blakemore’s notes by a second assistant stage manager. Lacking energy and stylishness, Lettice & Lovage is a strange vehicle for a serious consideration of the death of elegance and tradition; with defenders like Shaffer manning the towers, the battle is lost.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Martha Swope.