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WRY BRITISH HUMOR FILLS 3-ACT `LETTICE & LOVAGE'

Lettice refers to the central character in Peter Shaffer's delightful comedy: British tour guide Lettice Douffet.

And lovage is not a second character (for those who may have misconstrued the title into being some sort of romantic pairing like Barbie & Ken or Antony & Cleopatra). Rather, lovage, according to Webster's New World Dictionary, is a native European plant in the parsley family, sometimes used as a herb and once popular as a home medicine. We'll get into more detail about this aspect of the play a little later.Playwright Peter Shaffer's more recent works have been decidedly more serious - "Amadeus" and "Equus" (the former gracing the Lees Main Stage many seasons back and the latter given an excellent regional premiere even earlier by the long-gone Theatre 138). But despite the fact that those were hard-hitting dramas and this is a comedic farce, there are similarities.

When Lettice Douffet and her Preservation Trust supervisor Lotte Schoen are at loggerheads, things get Wilde (as in Oscar) - considerably more hilariously flamboyant than the volatile confrontations of composers Antonio Saliera vs. Wolfgant Amadeus Mozart or psychiatrist Martin Dysart vs. disturbed youth Alan Strang.

"Lettice & Lovage" is an old-fashioned three-act play with two intermissions.

The first scene is set in Fustian House, a 400-year-old mansion in Wiltshire, England. The place is stately, but b-o-r-i-n-g.

Since nothing significant happened at Fustian House, tour guide Lettice is wont to embellish her spiel as she parades gaggles of

STAGE visitors through the home. And, in the best Ted Turner fashion, her verbal colorization turns the site's dull black-and-white history into a full-scale Elizabethan spectacle.

Then Lotte slips into one of the tours, discovers what Lettice is up to, setting the scene for . . . the next scene (in which Lettice is thrashed and trashed) and the next two acts, during which Lettice and Lotte strike an Odd Couple friendship - a union that is toasted with hefty flagons of a potent brew blended from mead, vodka, sugar and lovage.

I won't give away some of the marvelously bizarre situations that ensue; suffice it to say, what Shaffer has written is a monumental tour de farce for the talents of Darrie Lawrence and Libby George, as Lettice and Lotte.

These two wonderful actresses maintain an energy level that is well nigh comparable to the London Blitz.

There are three very good performers in the handful of secondary roles (Richard Bow-den as Lettice's exasperated solicitor in the third act, Susan Dolan as Lotte Schoen's painfully shy secretary in the second scene, and Richard Mathews as a surly Elizabethan expert in the opening scene), but the success of the entire shows rests squarely on the considerable talents of Lawrence and George.

Even though the show runs for two hours and 45 minutes, director Libby Appel's firm hand and precision pacing keep the action moving smartly along.

Peter Harrison's sets (from the simple but very grand staircase, to Lotte's office to the show's real grabber - Lettice's campy flat), Carol Wells-Day's delightful costuming, James Prigmore's properly baroque musical score, and Peter L. Willardson's lighting were all excellent.

When Lotte chastises Lettice in the Preservation Trust office, she declares "We're not in the entertainment business!"

But Pioneer Theatre Company is - and if you enjoy the wry wit of British comedy, you'll love "Lettice & Lovage."