By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The real test of any play written as a star vehicle is how it works when performed by lesser mortals. Two productions that have just opened--Theatre Britain'sLettice & Lovage and Theatre Three's The Imaginary Invalid--feature so-so scripts that could benefit from more commanding personalities in the leading roles.
Peter Shaffer wrote the 1987 comedy Lettice & Lovage for Dame Maggie Smith, whose fiery performance as Lettice Douffet earned five-star reviews in London and New York. She won a 1990 Tony playing the eccentric, middle-aged tour guide fired from her National Trust job for elaborating too freely on the historical facts about "the most boring house in Britain."
Dame Maggie, best known today as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies, is tops at making high art out of hash. She's that good an actress. In Lettice & Lovage, she was handed a Maggie Smith-like character tailored to her considerable vocal and physical eccentricities.
In the play, Lettice's life is a crazy salad of exaggerations and studious avoidance of what she dismisses as "the mere." Spinning out bushels of dialogue in the play's three long acts, she's all histrionics and wide gestures. Lettice doesn't do anything halfway. This showy role requires lots of scenery--just so the actress playing her can chew it down to coleslaw. Each act ends with a melodramatic flourish. Pleading to her stuffy boss for her tour job back after being fired, Lettice, an expert on British history, throws off her full-length cape and re-enacts the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots.
When the good Dame did it, that execution scene brought down the house (I saw her in the role in London). But what fits Dame Maggie hangs differently on another actress. In Theatre Britain's production, now playing at the Trinity River Arts Center, we have Sue Birch, founder of and leading performer in the little company devoted to British comedies and dramas. She is a pleasant actress, skilled at playing sad, slightly vulnerable spinsters, which she has done to great effect in TB's productions of The Mysterious Mr. Love and The Day After the Fair. There is something small and wren-like about Birch, like the nervous housekeepers in Merchant-Ivory movies.
She is unfortunately out of her element in Lettice & Lovage. Instead of making the audience fall in love with Lettice's quaint attempts to live a glamorous existence surrounded by her relics of the past (props and costumes handed down by an actress-mother), Birch wafts awkwardly around the stage, throwing her hands in the air while acting bumptious and confused (she was a little rocky on lines opening night).
Without a tour de force to carry it, Lettice & Lovage proves to be a letdown. It's really not much of a script. Shaffer, who did better work with his hits Equus, Amadeus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, goes heavy on the blab and light on the plot.
The play unfolds as more or less a two-hander between Lettice and her nemesis, Lotte Schoen (Pem Price Medlin), a starchy National Trust supervisor. After Lotte jerks Lettice's job away in Act 1, the ladies become friends for no apparent reason. Act 2 finds them getting swacked on Lettice's homemade hooch, a heavy-duty liqueur brewed from mead, sugar and a carrot-y herb called lovage. They share an hour's worth of confidences that are so uninteresting I found myself listening more carefully to the livelier conversation of the kids running the board in the light booth.
Act 3--yes, there's an Act 3--finds Lettice facing trial for assaulting Lovage, er, Lotte. The silly premise concerns some ancient king and a re-enactment of his death using an antique ax or a guillotine or a Cuisinart or something. Coming out of nowhere, the misunderstanding that nearly lands Lettice in jail requires 45 minutes of exposition to slog through. Then there's another 15 minutes of new conversation in which the two ladies toss around an idea for taking tourists to the 50 ugliest buildings in London. Crikeys, this play is long. Lettice, let us leave!
Tell me, how often do theatergoers beg for more plays performed in rhymed couplets? How about never? Or only if they're clever?
Theatre Three's head honcho Jac Alder directs this Invalid from his own anemic translation of the old Molière comedy. Somebody should steal his rhyming dictionary. Or maybe buy him a new one. In his tortured script, he stoops to rhyming "bonhomie" with "notary," and "deter" with "murder." Ghastly. Like the wigs worn by Invalid's cast.
This theater opened its 2005-'06 season this summer with its best production in years, a sexy, elegant and beautifully acted Metamorphoses, directed by T.J. Walsh and featuring hot young actors splashing around in a swimming pool. We had such high hopes for a continuing trend. But no, Alder's back to his old tricks, casting his friends--family acting trio Doug Jackson, Amy Mills and their daughter, Abigail--and dragging out the same hoary set pieces (Alder designed the show, too) that keep this venue a cut below its competition in terms of aesthetics.