Scripps Ranch, CA----Peter Shaffer’s “Lettice & Lovage” is one of those off beat British theatrical comedies that after the first American production went into previews in 1990 it ran for 286 performances. Before that in London in 1987, the two-year 768 performances at the Gielgud Theatre was one of the longest runs in London Theatrical History.
According to Shaffer, the role of Lettice Douffet was written specifically for Dame Maggie Smith. She went on to win a Tony for Best Actress in a play and Margaret Tyzack won the Tony for best Featured Actress. Get the picture? Two very strong women playing opposite each other in roles just as different, and it worked.
Shaffer’s (“Equus” and “Amadeus”)”Lettuce and Lovage” is receiving a fine outing at Scripps Ranch Theatre through Oct. 6th with two of San Diego’s finest, most experienced and not seen enough on our stages. Jill Drexler and Dana Hooley couldn’t look, act or have such different acting styles if we wished it.
If ever there were two actors not to miss, these are the two. Seeing them on the same stage playing against each other is what fine theatre is all about and they make magic happen. Director Kathy Brombacher (just retired artistic director of Moonlight Stage Productions) hit the jackpot with this casting and we hit the jackpot with having Kathy out and about.
Lettice Douffet (Jill Drexler) was raised in the theatre. Her mother was an actress who ran a touring company of actors all trained to speak Shakespeare “thrillingly in the French tongue”. Lettice is quirky, theatrical to a fault and just plain eccentric and fun to watch especially in her bizarre costumes (Roslyn Lehman).
As the play opens, she is giving sightseers a guided tour of Faustian House, the “dullest house in England”. To make the House accoutrements more interesting, she embellishes the truth and distorts the mansion’s history. Living her mother’s motto to the T “Enlarge, Enliven, Enlighten”, Lettice is a one-woman show during these tours.
She has a particular affinity to dramatize various missteps around the staircase, which is roped off. Three different versions as told to three different sets of tourists sets the stage for a showdown between Lettice and her boss Lottie Schoen. (Hooley). “You’re not expected to make things out of the house, Miss Douffet. Merely show the people around it.” “I’m afraid I can’t agree. I’m here to enlighten them”
Ms. Drexler is the ultimate Lettice inhabiting her personality so much so the one would be hard pressed to figure out where one left off and the other takes over. She embellishes her tour script with each tour deviating from the facts of the last so much so that one of the visitors on the tour (Tom Stephenson plays a ‘surly man’ and several other characters) asks for references to one of her particular interpretations, about a visit by ‘The Virgin Queen of England’. When challenged, she changes the subject by accusing him of being hostile.
Lottie Schoen, on the other hand, heads the office of the “Preservation Trust in London”. She is the flip side of Lettice; no nonsense, just the facts, please. Lottie was surrounded by art books as a youngster. After her own mother ran off with another man she was brought up by a strict architect father, whom she looked after until his death thereby giving up her chances to attend the Polytechnic institute for girls. She has a few things to say to Lettice about the history of fine the English house and how it should be presented to the public. “This is intolerable”, as she interrupts one of the tours.
Hooley’s Lottie tailored and stiff upper lip, straight-laced and straight-faced is a no nonsense take no prisoner’s personality; iron clad.
After a shaky meeting in Lottie’s office where she has to ‘let Lettice go’, the play takes on another dimension. Neither woman gives an inch, but Lettice ruffles Lotties feathers as the two banter about their different philosophies and ideologies after Lottie pays a visit to Lettice’s flat offering her a letter of recommendation for another job.
As different as the two are, they soon cultivate a friendship and later become companions agreeing to doing things as a team that neither would do alone. It takes a while but they let their hair down after Lettice insists Lottie drink a bit of ‘Quaff’. Yup, you have to gulp it down for it to make a full impact. BTW it’s one of Lettice’s Tudor drinks. Lottie complies and after ‘knocking back’ two goblets of Lettice’s favorite drink, the fun begins.
Tom Stephenson is terrific as he takes on several characters, in particular Mr. Bardolph, the lawyer representing Lettice in a convoluted case of misunderstanding between Lottie and Lettice. (You have to see this one to believe it). Debra Wanger, playing Miss. Framer Lottie’s secretary and various characters in crowd scenes is a hoot as she goes over the usual exit and cell phone procedures before the performance. Wanger and Stephenson have the most convincing British accents. Neither Ms. Drexler nor Ms. Hooley fully mastered that art.
The play has three acts requiring two set changes, one taking quite a bit of skill turning N. Nixon Fish’s complex set from an historic house to an office to Lottie’s basement flat. That it all comes together deserves a hat’s off to both designers (Angelica Ynfante, props) and the stagehands. Rounding out the fine production values Ted Leib’s sound and Mitchell Simkovsky’s lighting design add to the overall look of this neglected little treasure.
You might not get a chance to see these two experienced women playing opposite each other for some time. Jump at the opportunity while you can.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Oct. 6th
Organization: Scripps Ranch Theatre
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 10455 Pomerado Rd., San Diego CA 92131
Ticket Prices: $28.00
Venue: Legler Benbough Theatre, Alliant International University