THEATER REVIEW : 'Lettice' in San Clemente: a Naked Lunch

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lettuce isn't much, but dress it up with the right stuff, and it's more than edible.

"Lettice and Lovage" isn't much either, but dress it up with nifty actors and production values, and you've got something.

Playwright Peter Shaffer certainly had something on both London's West End and Broadway, where his late-'80s comedy extended his phenomenal run of hits, starting with "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" and "Black Comedy" on through "Equus" and "Amadeus."

And with Maggie Smith in the title role of Lettice Douffet, an absurdly anachronistic romantic so bored with her tour-guide post that she makes up tales during her spiel, the show must have seemed special. Even without Smith, as in South Coast Repertory's production last year, "Lettice" went down very nicely.

Take away the gloss, the stars, the charisma, and you've stripped things down to the play itself. This is the case at San Clemente Community Theatre's Cabrillo Playhouse, where, under Sandy Silver's direction, once the stripping has been done, there's not a whole lot left. "Lettice and Lovage" is undeniably Shaffer's meekest, slightest play.

As in his best dramas, he pits two opposites. Unfortunately, Lettice and Lotte Schoen--personnel director of the British Preservation Trust that employs Lettice--are hardly Montezuma and Cortez, or Mozart and Salieri.

One is a loopy dreamer, filling her materially impoverished life with mythic literary bon mots and a trumped-up eccentricity that may be even too much by the highly developed British standard.

The other is a practical bureaucrat who nevertheless shares with Lettice a love for the old, a hatred for the new and a hunger for companionship. Shaffer's play is fundamentally about how the companionship comes--and nearly goes.

Neither the coming nor the going are very convincing or very much against our expectations. We expect such opposites to snuggle up, particularly when Lotte fires Lettice from her stint at the Trust's Fustian House. We expect them to share fun, eccentric times with each other, just as we expect them to have some kind of falling out. Just as we expect them to patch things up in the end.

We expect, though, something different from Shaffer, who typically has lived by the dramaturgical rule of "If your audience is assuming you'll go right, take them left."

Judging by the wink-and-a-smile sense of his dialogue in "Lettice," it sounds as if he figured that sheer cuteness and our collective desire for nostalgia embodied in Lettice--and, in the play's early life, the casting of Smith and the brilliant Margaret Tyzack--would take us over the play's trouble spots.

He wouldn't be the first playwright to figure this, especially with a stellar cast in mind. Construct the vehicle, and they will ride. But in the more modest hands of Odette Derryberry (Lettice) and Carole Hennessy (Lotte) at Cabrillo, this lighter-than-air contraption is remarkably dull stuff.

*

Derryberry certainly isn't dull. Listen to her proclaim that "fantasy floods in where fact leaves a vacuum," and we can glimpse some of Lettice's identity and longing.

There's a warble coursing through Derryberry's American-British dialect, mixed with a haughtiness comically out of place in her Earl's Court surroundings (blankly realized by set and costume designer Gail Spielman) that makes this Lettice worth listening to. It isn't a skilled performance, but it more than does the job.

Hennessy, though, doesn't even get her dialect straight. In fact, she doesn't venture near any kind of British dialect and doesn't get any closer to Lotte's intentions, which remain murky to the end.

What she really wants from Lettice, beyond simple companionship, is just as murky for Shaffer, and Hennessy doesn't yet have the skills to make something theatrically interesting on her own. The real test of this, in the final scene where the friendship nearly seriously blows up, reveals one of the most mechanically contrived friends-making-up scenes in playwriting history.

*

A very nice grace note here arrives care of Anthony Houghton as Lettice's proper lawyer in the play's preposterous climactic clash. Houghton, himself British, brings an Old World charm to a staging that needs more of it.

We should add that the cat Muffy, as Lettice's faithful Felina, Queen of Sorrows, is an exotic, well-behaved creature. We also should add that the stage crew needs to practice its moves during the complicated set changes.

Nothing, though, can be done for a play far below the challenging standard set by a usually fascinating writer.

* "Lettice and Lovage," Cabrillo Playhouse, 202 Avenida Cabrillo, San Clemente. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sunday and Jan. 22, 2 p.m. Ends Jan. 28. $10. (714) 492-0465. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Odette Derryberry: Lettice

Carole Hennessy: Lotte

Anthony Houghton: Mr. Bardolph

Christine Dejohn: Miss Framer

Rob Steffen: Surly Man

A San Clemente Community Theatre production of Peter Shaffer's comedy. Directed by Sandy Silver. Sets and costumes: Gail Spielman. Lights: Erica Guerra. Sound: K. Robert Eaton.

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