Terra Nova Theatre Group is exploring historic ground rather than something new, Peter Shaffer’s 1987 much-admired comedy Lettice and Lovage. In doing so the company ably reveals the originality and appeal that lies in this jolly entertainment, at the same time providing a wonderful discovery for many of us, namely Susan Martinelli. In the role of Lettice, her wonderful performance makes a visit something not to be missed.
The play does not seem complicated, so a great deal depends on the playing and direction. Director Mark Stevenson makes all the staging stride and flow with natural ease in Grey Box Theatre’s small, store-front playing space while Martinelli evokes the grandeur of an Oscar Wilde-like person in dialogue to match. Her every speech, her every gesture amuses and charms.
At first Lettice Douffet, who has family history in Theatre, is a tour guide in Fustian House, cleverly named by Shaffer (“fustian” meaning among other things, pompous), a 16th Century building of evident marginal significance. Lettice has been adding spurious background and details which are not in the specifications of her narrative. Lotte Schoen, who works for the owner of Fustian House relieves her of her post. But eventually they become friends, sharing a disgust with modern architecture and a vivid fascination with the details of executions of bygone royal personages.
The third act becomes the most engaging, not only because it deals with a conundrum, but also because actor Mark Yochum comes on stage to capably and amusingly play a lawyer named Bardolph, supplementing Martinelli and actress Allison Cahill as Lotte, the other major role. Director Stevenson and Cahill have also done really well in transforming Lotte from a contained civil servant into someone more lively and alive.
Re lovage: it’s an herb, in this case one added to a drink Lettice has invented, a drink which loosens up Lotte into revealing much about herself.
You can see why this play has delighted many audiences in the past. And playwright Shaffer has likewise written other celebrated works, alas, not mentioned in the program book. Most famous include, sequentially, Five Finger Exercise, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Black Comedy, Equus and Amadeus. By the way, he was a coal miner during World War II.
Advice: to hear and understand the production best, sit facing the stage, not on the side. But you might want to arrive early. There aren’t a lot of seats and the night I attended the cast played to a full house, a delighted house.
Lettice & Lovage plays through July 7th The Grey Box Theatre is at 3595 Butler Street, Lawrenceville. ProArts Tickets: 412/394.3353 or www.proartstickets.org. Info at www.terranovatheatregroup.org