BWW Review: Lindsay Crouse Enlivens LETTICE AND LOVAGE at Gloucester Stage Company
Lettice and Lovage
Written by Peter Shaffer, Directed by Benny Sato Ambush; Dialect Coach, Amelia Broome; Original Music/Sound Design, Dewey Dellay; Costume Design, Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Design, Brian J. Lilienthal; Set Design, Jon Savage; Production Stage Manager, Maura Neff
CAST (in alphabetical order): Mark Cohen, Lindsay Crouse, Marya Lowry, Janelle Mills; TOURISTS: Jackie Bowden, Ashley Croce, Sarah Fader, Caitlyn Jones, Jane Keddy, Anna MacInnis, Aria McElhenny, Cormac McGowan, Nick Neyeloff, Larry Oakes, Nate Oakes, Sarah Oakes, Xander Oakes, Jameson Rust, Joyce Smallcomb, Trina Smith, Marj Stark, Linda Steigler, Karina Wen, Claire Wilson
Performances through June 11 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
Gloucester Stage Company opens its 37th season with Lettice and Lovage as a star vehicle for Academy Award-nominated Gloucester resident Lindsay Crouse. Written by Peter Shaffer (Equus, Amadeus) for beloved British actress Dame Maggie Smith, Crouse takes on the title role of tour guide Lettice Douffet and makes it her own with panache and good humor. Marya Lowry is her incredulous employer Lotte Schoen and together they raise the bar for the art of verbal sparring. The esteemed scene partners feast on Shaffer's rich language and throw themselves into the theatrical shenanigans of the play, with supporting silliness well-represented by Janelle Mills (Miss Framer) and Mark Cohen (Mr. Bardolph).
Director Benny Sato Ambush, whose last collaboration with Crouse was the fantastic 2013 GSC production of Driving Miss Daisy, has both hands on the wheel for this spin through the English countryside. Lettice is the docent at a mind-numbingly boring estate called, appropriately enough, Fustian House. After she observes visitors yawn, look at their watches, and wander off while she gives her spiel, she takes it upon herself to "Enlarge! Enliven! Enlighten!" her tours using her considerable imagination and theatrical talents. Unfortunately, her embellishments bring her to the attention of Miss Schoen of the Preservation Trust who comes to spy on her. Disgusted by Lettice's blatantly fabricated stories, Lotte summonses her to the London office to call her on the carpet. A stickler for the truth, Lotte finds Lettice to be unsuitable and, ultimately, dismisses her from her position, setting the stage for more histrionics.
In light of the adversarial nature of their first encounter, it is counter-intuitive to suspect that Lettice and Lotte might find themselves bonding, but, as two women of a certain age, they share certain sensibilities and each fills a void for the other. Their love of history compels them to research and act out the lives and deaths of legendary figures, complete with costumes and props. However, one night things go awry, the police get involved, and Lettice finds herself in a very different kind of hot water. Her attorney (Cohen) struggles to get her to cooperate with him, but she eventually relates the story into his tape recorder. When Lotte shows up, the two re-enact the incident with as much veracity as possible, short of further bloodshed, even enticing Bardolph to participate.
One of the highlights of the Gloucester Stage production is Jon Savage's set design which employs multiple revolving pieces to take us from Fustian House to Lotte's office to Lettice's basement flat. Costume designer Miranda Kau Giurleo gives Lettice a Bohemian appearance, with an array of scarves and belts to mark different days on the job, and dresses Lotte in more sedate, professional attire. Lighting design is by Brian J. Lilienthal, while Dewey Dellay overlays original music and handles sound design. Estimable Amelia Broome is the dialect coach, imbuing everyone's speech with authenticity. Mills, who totally captures the flaky character of Lotte's secretary, and Cohen double as tourists along with a handful of extras recruited by GSC to be in the show, in exchange for free tickets.
For Lettice, "the play's the thing" and living large is preferred over being "mere." Although her life is upended by Lotte, she becomes the catalyst for change in the latter's life and, by the end of the play, you almost expect to hear them singing "For Good" from Wicked ("...because I knew you, I have been changed for good."). Lettice and Lovage could use a pick-me-up like that; as delightful as the performances are, the plot has a tendency to founder as some of the exposition is belabored and back stories tell us more than we need to know. The good news is that the focus is on these two mid-life women, but the bad news is that Shaffer injects the idea that they might have outlived their usefulness. He doesn't leave them in that position for long and actually comes up with a very clever purpose for them in the end, but the suggestion is hard to swallow when he has previously shown them both to be artistic and bright. It is no embellishment to conclude by saying that Crouse and Lowry embody that spirit.