Thursday, January 18, 2007

Maggie and Me (and Lettice & Lovage)

I once had after-theatre supper with Maggie Smith, sort of.

Familiar to a new generation as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies, she was then known as the Oscar-nominated star of Travels With My Aunt, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and other films. I was actually supping with Pat Mitchell, then the entertainment reporter for a Boston television station, now the head of PBS. The restaurant catered to Boston's theatre people, including those participating in touring shows. It was a lively place. At one point in the evening I heard someone playing the piano and singing who sounded a lot like Joel Grey, fresh from his Cabaret fame. I turned around: It was Joel Grey.

I was seated next to Pat but at the next table, across from me and a little to the left, was Maggie Smith, in town starring in Noel Coward's Private Lives. She was dining with a man older than both of us who I didn't recognize.  I had an unobstructed view of her any time I turned my head that way, but Pat was on my right and quite attractive as well, so I wasn't tempted to stare.  But I did turn to see her looking at her companion with those large, empathetic blue eyes, both hands on his arm.

I thought of that moment when reading that British playwright Peter Schaffer wrote Lettice and Lovage for Maggie Smith, at her request.  I could readily believe she could be very persuasive.

Shaffer was already famous for Equus and Amadeus, both serious plays focused on male characters (perhaps that's why they both end in "us.")  But Lettice and Lovage would be a comedy principally featuring older women.  The risk worked out well for both author and actor.  The play won a Best of the Year award in London, and when it came to Broadway in 1990, Maggie Smith (who played Lettice) won the Best Actress Tony.

This week Lettice and Lovage comes to Ferndale Rep, with Marilyn Foot as Lettice and the Rep's artistic director Marilyn McCormick reprising her role as Lotte from the Rep's production a decade ago.

"It's a sweet story about two women who basically don't fit into society, " says director Rene Grinnell.  "They form a friendship that eventually becomes what saves them."

Lettice (a name derived from the Latin word for gladness) Douffet is the dramatically-inclined and history-minded daughter of a Frenchwoman who ran an all-women theatrical troupe that performed Shakespeare in French.  But now she is a tour guide at a London house of historical significance, if not much interest.  As the play begins she is livening up her patter with flamboyant inaccuracies.  Lotte, her temperamental opposite, is her boss who fires her for this transgression.  This of course turns out to be the beginning rather than the end of their relationship.

The play deals playfully but meaningfully with issues of reality and fantasy, an authentic versus a conventional life, the present versus the past, and more topically, with the ugliness of contemporary buildings and the need to preserve classic architecture.

It is also very English in its references and humor (or humour) but the Ferndale production took this as a challenge.  "Everyone had a lot of fun doing the research on the history, the architecture and most of all on British life," Grinnell said.   Since Lettice and Lovage is still produced often in America, it must translate pretty well.

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