ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Specializing, as they do, in British plays, West End Productions has a narrower pool of dramas to choose from than most theater companies. It’s certainly hard to imagine a more English play than Peter Shaffer’s “Lettice & Lovage,” the latest British drama on display at the North Fourth Art Center, where West End makes its home.
Shaffer is best-known for such scintillating dramas as “Equus” and “Amadeus,” but he wrote “Lettice & Lovage” in 1986 specifically to showcase the comedic talents of Maggie Smith.
Lettice Doufett, the role originated by Smith, is a histrionic tour guide at an Elizabethan manor house with little historical relevance that might excite her patrons.
The first scene is divided into three parts and shows Lettice giving the same tour three times to three groups, embellishing and fabricating incidents more and more with each one. The same actors, with lightning-quick costume changes, play disparate characters in each tour and are entirely convincing.
It really seemed as though it were a completely new group each time. Besides the talented actors, credit for this surely goes to director Marty Epstein, who manages to coax dramatically altered body language and character types from his actors in each iteration of the tour.
Lettice is played by West End founder Colleen Neary McClure, who has the classical training and capacity for grandiosity required to make the role – and the play – work.
The flighty Lettice is matched against rigid bureaucrat Lotte Schoen (nicely played by Jessica Osbourne), who confronts her on the last tour and summons her to her London office, where she is expeditiously terminated from the employ of the Preservation Trust.
The play tells the story of the unaccountable friendship that develops between this incongruous pair, who it turns out equally loathe modern architecture.
While the comic heart of the play is Lettice, Lotte is the character who changes most, transforming from a lifeless functionary into a lively member of the END, “Eyesore Negation Detachment,” whose motto is “enlarge, enliven, enlighten.”
That motto is inherited from Lettice’s mom, formerly an English thespian in France heading an all-female French-language Shakespearean troupe called Les Barbares – taken from Voltaire, who detested Shakespeare and called him “the barbarian.” She played Richard III and Falstaff with the same pillow, moving it from the hunchback’s posterior to the glutton’s belly.
Lettice is entirely her mother’s daughter, dedicated to “lighting up the world, not dousing it in dust,” as she says to Lotte, who does seem entirely dedicated to dousing the world in dust, at least until she falls under Lettice’s influence.
Costume designer Carolyn Hogan has suitably attired Lettice in some truly audacious costumes, one in particular, right out of her mother’s wardrobe.
Afterward, a member of the audience described the show as “delightful inanity.” That seems apt, as the plot is light, frivolous and improbable.
It works as theater entirely on the basis of the two actors playing Lettice and Lotte. Thankfully, both McClure and Osbourne are very good. Parker Owen and Margie Maes are also quite good in smaller parts.
“Lettice & Lovage” is playing through June 30 at the VSA North Fourth Art Center, 4904 Fourth NW, Albuquerque. Go to westendproductions.org or call 404-8462 for reservations.