Bad Produce

Barbra Berlowitz and Wendy Lehr cutting up in 'Lettice and Lovage'
Michal Daniel

If the present moment can often feel like a big disappointment, the past can certainly give it a run for its money, what with all the wars and tragic destruction and aesthetic degradation. In Peter Shaffer's comedy, Lettice Douffet gets around to these ideas after facing a different dilemma: She's a tour guide at Fustian House, the most boring tourist site in England. Lettice, her mental cannon epitomizing looseness, proceeds to make up stories to please her audiences. For her trouble she is quickly shitcanned.

It's probably the best part of a show that never delivers on the snappy irreverence and deeper subtexts to which it aspires. Wendy Lehr as Lettice opens things up with the hasty evolution of what is to be a broad performance when she moves rapid-fire through a series of tours, each one embellished with more elaborate narrative inventions. She's dressed up in raggedy Elizabethan approximations, and Lehr's evident glee with Lettice's short-lived role as a crowd-pleaser is enhanced by the role's potential for physicality and energy. Unfortunately, by evening's end the character and the performance border on the tiresome.

Barbra Berlovitz is Lotte Schoen, who works for the Preservation Trust and who is initially appalled by the liberties Lettice has taken with British history. Berlovitz plays Lotte as brittle and afraid of the world, and has a few nice moments in later scenes when Lotte and Lettice become unlikely friends. Other sequences grate, though, such as when Lotte is firing Lettice--trying to fill up the spacious theater, Lehr and Berlovitz seem to be simply shouting lines at one another rather than having a real argument.

Ah, one thinks, but isn't that sort of the point? Lettice is defined by her theatricality. Her love of artifice and narrative derive from her understanding that all the world's a stage, right? Yes and no. While Lettice's view of life as drama justifies and illuminates Lehr's performance, there's a deeper problem at work. The play itself is constructed around hollow types--the crazy dreamer with the heart of gold and a unique wisdom all her own, the prim and repressed woman with secret pains and passions--and this production does little to take us into deeper waters. We are even presented with the mousy and frightened office assistant, for Pete's sake. It feels at times as though we are being asked to enjoy cliché, as sophisticated as it might be in its presentation.

Joel Sass directs and designs the sets, which usually means that the eye will be in for various treats. This time out, Sass provides a suitable but unexceptional design. The first act revolves around a disembodied staircase and then Lotte's office, while the second takes place in Lettice's run-down brick basement apartment.

Things are steered into the realm of the ridiculous in the third act, in which Lettice has injured Lotte while pursuing their new and inadvertently dangerous hobby (I won't spoil the surprise, although it's no great shakes). Vincent Gracieux's absurdist and easily amazed barrister Mr. Bardolph arrives to sort things out and ends up riding an imaginary horse, which is about as much fun as it sounds. In these later scenes, though, Lehr and Berlovitz are frequently adept at finding the real moments of connection between their female middle-aged characters, and this is much of what appeals about the work. It's inherently interesting to get a window into the lives of these two eccentrics, no longer young and playing out the string of their various illusions and regrets. Their flashes of insight into the destruction of Europe in WWII (and after) and how it relates to architecture and our frequently sad and ridiculous existence, simply don't pay out on a great enough scale to compensate for all the surrounding moments of tedium, or the impatience this show provokes.

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