On Peter Shaffer's "Lettice and Lovage" at Renaissance Theatreworks.
In 1984, England’s Prince Charles made headlines by taking sides in a typically British fuss over the state of architecture in the 20th century. Modernist buildings were destroying the queen’s landscape with their brutalist blobs of poured concrete, he told the Royal Institute of British Architects. He successfully forced design changes to a proposed addition to the National Gallery, but couldn’t quite muster enough public outrage to change the design of the uber-Brutalist National Theatre building on the South Bank, which he later called “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”.
Peter Shaffer’s very English comedy, Lettice and Lovage never played at The National, but you could imagine Shaffer’s glee when it successfully moved from a tour of the provinces to the West End’s Booth Theatre, a short ride from the development-crazed South Bank, lorded over by the National.
As his introduction to the American edition of the play makes clear, Shaffer shared the bonnie prince’s architectural opinions, so he certainly had fun creating Lotte Schoen, an administrator with The National Trust, the group charged with preserving and protecting Britain’s historic places. As played by Carrie Hitchcock in Renaissance Theatreworks sparkling production of Shaffer’s play, Schoen is Brutalist architecture personified, a pencil pusher whose dour demeanor makes Charles look like Benny Hill by comparison (costume designer Jason Orlenko appropriately clads her in concrete gray). His play charts the friendship of Lotte and Lettice Douffet, whose own anti-modern sympathies can be traced back to France, where she grew up among the footlights and greasepaint of her mother’s theater company.
When we first meet Lettice, she is a tour guide at Fustian House, a National Trust monument that–like many of Shaffer’s punning titles—is aptly described by its dowdy name. Undaunted by actual events, Lettice keeps her tourists interested in the house by embellishing its ho-hum past, inflating the importance of the manor’s lowly staircase until it nearly rivals Bosworth Field in the annals of British history. After Ms. Schoen receives complaints from a few skeptical tourists, she goes to Fustian to get a taste for Lettice’s flair, after which she summons the renegade guide to her London office and summarily fires her.
But the meeting is the beginning of a beautiful—if unlikely–friendship. When Ms. Schoen visits Lettice at her flat, she’s too terrified of Felina, Queen of Sorrows (Lettice’s cat) to notice the walls festooned with broadswords and gauntlets (the charming, jigsaw puzzle of a set is by Steve Barnes). But the two bond over their mutual love of history—a few goblets of Lettice’s homemade “quaff” (a Medieval recipe that contains the eponymous herb “lovage”), and the two start bonding over stories that decry the “mere,” including modern buildings and any kind of history that is less-than-Shakespearean.
In some ways, the play has aged a bit awkwardly. Ms. Schoen’s comic story about attempting to bomb an ugly modern building loses some of its zany edge in the post 9/11 age. But the pair’s passion for jolly old England seems tailor-made America’s new wave of Downton Abbey-inspired Anglophilia. Not to mention the internet age, where historical and journalistic fact play second fiddle to flamboyant rhetoric and viral click-bait.
Lettice and Lovage is most welcome here because it’s a brilliantly funny vehicle for two talented comic actors, Laura Gordon and Carrie Hitchock. Directed by Jenny Wanasek, the pair tackle Shaffer’s often daunting dialogue with an appropriate flair for the dramatic—Hitchcock with a Buster-Keaton glower and Gordon with declamatory poses and histrionic rhetoric that’s a potent blend of Lady Bracknell and the Absolutely Fabulous gals. Emily Vitrano and Bryce Lord contribute their own comic touches in supporting roles. But this is the Laura and Carrie show from the get go. Their eccentricities are lavish and impassioned, but they make us feel right at home. It’s their world—from the executioners block to the Mary Queen of Scots gown—and we’re welcome to it.