Grand It Ain't: 'Lettice & Lovage' At Westport Playhouse

The show: "Lettice & Lovage" at Westport Country Playhouse

What is it?: A slight Peter Shaffer British comedy, best known as a vehicle for Maggie Smith, who won a Tony for the role in 1990. 

The takeaway: Who doesn't like grand characters spitting delicious witticisms with a flourish. (Auntie Mame anyone?) But these characters can get annoying if they don't have that  je ne sais quoi. Because of a late in rehearsal switch in casting -- Patricia Connolly dropped out and Kandis Chappell was brought in by director Mark Lamos -- perhaps the show was still finding itself when I saw it. But I suspect this is the type of play that simply needs a star to make audiences look past its many flaws.

What's it about?: Lettice Douffet (Chappell) is a docent at the most boring stately home in England and the opening scenes of the play are the best. She's giving a talk to a flock of utterly bored tourists. Cut to another day when she gives a bit of embellishment to liven up the talk. She notices that the crowd is more attentive. Cut to another session and then another. By the end,  she is creating an action-packed fantasy filled with alternative facts and the crowd is enthralled -- and her tip jar runneth over. It's a great 10 minutes or so.

But then Charlotte Schoen, the Preservation Trust official, played with the right amount of stunned propriety and social awkwardness by Mia Dillon, gets wind of it and shuts her down. When Lettice pleads her case, incredulously, an odd friendship emerges between a person who see life on a grand scale and another who is rooted in reality -- but gets swept up in living life theatrically.

Sounds promising: Yes, but you don't quite believe it, or last I didn't here. Then the play takes a cuckoo turn in the second act involving an accident  that has Lettice facing criminal charges on assault on Charlotte. (Don't ask.) It's the type of silliness that utterly depends on the ability of the performers to lap up some clever turns of phrase and indulge in some comic takes and to mix it up a bit from their one-note personas. Though Paxton Whitehead as Lettice's solicitor has some splendid moments of befuddlement -- and he played the same role on Broadway with Dame Smith --  the second act is one long slog of preposterous invention.

Who will like it?: Those who enjoy British attitudes, enriched vocabularies and battles between  imagineers and realists.,

Who won't?:  Those who find irrepressible figures repressible.

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Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Comedy is hard and British comedy may be hardest of all, rooted in just the right tilt to that country's classic archness. But there's also the more hardened fact: The play just doesn't hold up without a star performance. Without it, it's just not as delightful as it wants to be. 

Info: westportplayhouse.org.