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Two of the 1991-92 Salt Lake theater season's most important - and eagerly anticipated - regional premieres open this week.

One is Peter Shaffer's award-winning British comedy "Lettice & Lovage" on the Lees Main Stage of Pioneer Memorial Theatre. The other is Terrence McNally's acclaimed tragicomedy, "The Lisbon Traviata" at Salt Lake Acting Company.Pioneer Theatre Company is one of barely a handful of regional theaters across the country fortunate enough to acquire the rights for "Lettice & Lovage," which the Shubert Organization suddenly restricted last summer when plans for a proposed national tour were finalized. Despite the cutoff, regional contracts already written had to be respected, according to Arden Heide, a Los Angeles-based representative for Samuel French Inc., the play's publishing house.

With guest director Libby Appel at the helm, PTC's production of "Lettice & Lovage" will run from March 18 through April 4.

The comedy was written by Shaffer as a vehicle for his friend, noted British actress Maggie Smith.

"The Lisbon Traviata," too, was a "star vehicle" for its 1990-91 West Coast engagements at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco. Both featured Richard Thomas ("The Waltons") as part of a fiercly obsessive foursome.

The two completely diverse plays - one about an eccentric London tour guide given to flights of fancy and the other focusing on the explosive passions of two operaholics and their friends - should provide Salt Lake theatergoers with some lively and provocative alternatives for the next few weeks.

- LETTICE & LOVAGE centers on British tour guide Lettice Douffet, a woman who theatrically parades gaggles of rubbernecking tourists through Fustian House, an old British mansion with a rather dull, lackluster history.

Since nothing much actually took place at Fustian House, Lettice takes things into her own hands - colorfully embroidering the house's stark past with her own highly imaginative tales.

The Virgin Queen herself was rescued from certain death in this very house - if you believe Lettice's spiel. A nobleman's bride tumbled to an excruciating fate. The dining hall was the scene of lavish feasts.

After word gets around about Lettice's glorious, but inaccurate, stories, she is fired by her horrified Preservation Trust supervisor, Lotte Schoen. But the two discover they share a mutual love for the glories of Olde England, and they toast their friendship with a brew containing the herb lovage.

The five major characters in the comedy are played by Darrie Lawrence (Lettice), Libby George (Lotte), Richard Mathews (Surly Man), Susan Dolan (Miss Framer) and Richard Bowden (Mr. Bardolph).

Both Darrie Lawrence and Libby George are based in New York. Lawrence most recently performed in "The Guardsman" for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Portland. George has appeared in a number of New York companies, national tours and TV shows. Both have also performed in major regional theaters throughout the country.

Peter Harrison is set designer for the show, with Carol Wells-Day as costume designer and Peter L. Willardson in charge of lighting. James Prigmore has composed original background music.

- THE LISBON TRAVIATA explores the campy lives of four New York men, two of whom are obsessed with opera, particularly arare recorded version of "La Traviata" starring Maria Callas in Lisbon on March 27, 1958.

Both director Edward J. Gryska and playwright Terrence McNally have emphasized that while the four men are gay, their sexual identity is not an issue in the play.

McNally's four characters could just as easily have been written as little old ladies in a bridge club or four stockbrokers or four obsessed bird-watchers or whatever.

"I saw it at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles with Richard Thomas in the cast," said Gryska, "and I thought it was one of McNally's best plays.

"I had also seen Kathy Bates in (McNally's earlier) `Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune,' so I could compare the two, and `Traviata' kept the audience spellbound.

"It's a compelling story that pulls you in, and you really want to know what's going to happen."

McNally adds, "I wanted to write a play about gay men in which their sexuality is a given and not the subject of the play."

Gerald Nachman, the San Francisco Chronicle's theater critic, in his review of the work, said, "As in all opera, the driving force is possessive love, jealousy, pride, sex, retribution and madness, which at first takes the form of two operaholics dishing divas. But the nasty humor that drives the first act, spins out of control in the second half, where nastier, more basic passions are released."

Nachman called the play's first half "a devastating, non-stop, 50-minute lethal slice-and-dice session that leaves the stage littered with the bodies of Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne and Jessye Norman - not to mention Angela Lansbury, whom Mendy (the operaphile whose consuming passion is Maria Callas) takes unusual delight in ripping to shreds; but then he reserves a special revulsion for musicals."

Gryska's cast includes Eric Jenkins as Stephen, Tom Jacobsen as Mendy, Jim Allman as Mike and Donald McClure as Paul.

(The original New York and West Coast productions of "The Lisbon Traviata" were directed by John Tillinger, who also directed the recent production of "Love Letters" at the Capitol Theatre.) Gryska warns prospective patrons that the play does contain a smattering of adult language and there is very brief nudity.

The gist of the plot: The first act takes place in Mendy's apartment, where Stephen is spending the evening, mostly to avoid a confrontation with Michael, with whom he's shared an about-to-end eight-year relationship. (Michael, it's explained, is using his and Stephen's apartment for a tryst with his new friend, Paul.) The first act focuses on a hilariously venomous, insult-laden battle between Stephen and Mendy over opera.

McNally has structured the play itself much like an opera. He told San Francisco Chronicle writer Steven Winn, "I set out, quite consiously, to write an opera buffa in the first act and a verismo opera in the second."

The second act, which shifts to Stephen and Michael's apartment, marks a 180-degree turn, both visually and textually.

Mendy's apartment is campily Victorian, while Michael's is sleek, stark and modern. The biting comedy in the first half also sets the wheels in motion for the dramatic confrontation in the second half.

"The ending is very operatic," said Gryska, adding that the entire play "touches on general human emotions - things we've all experienced: falling in and out of love, the different degrees of love within a relationship, wishing someone else was in love with you but they're not.

"There's also an element of intrigue, while you watch the manipulation that goes on between Stephen and Michael, then watch Stephen fall apart."

Sound designer Reiner Peery has developed a soundtrack for the production integrating grand opera into the action, including selections by Maria Callas.

(The Lisbon performance of "La Traviata" is now available on compact disc, although the sonic quality, I've been told, remains somewhat primitive by today's exacting standards.)