In Peter Shaffer's comedy, "Lettice & Lovage," the title character is an eccentric Englishwoman named Lettice Douffet. At least as flamboyant as her distinctive name or her flowing black cloak, Lettice unleashes a tirade when the word "merely" is used in relation to her activities " I do not do anything merely!" she protests.
And indeed, much of the ensuing action concerns Lettice's battle against the "mere." But ironically, the word "mere" sums up the problem with Julie Harris' portrayal. Shaffer wrote this part for Maggie Smith, and Harris is wise to adopt a different approach from that ebullient and idiosyncratic actress.
However, particularly since Lettice lives by the motto: "Enlarge, enliven, enlighten," substituting restraint for exuberance is hardly the best choice. Instead of buoyancy, there's a tinge of sadness to Harris' portrayal. Comparisons may be odious, but even theatergoers who didn't see Smith's performance are likely to find themselves imagining her in the role.
Fortunately, "Lettice & Lovage" is more than a character study. After all, Shaffer is the author of "Equus" and "Amadeus." And despite the fact that its structure meanders, this is a comedy with consequential themes. The most obvious theme is history -- romance vs. truth. As the curtain rises, Lettice is working as a tour guide at what she later calls the "dullest house in England." Unable to hold the tourists' attention, she begins embroidering the facts; each time we hear her spiel, it gets more fantastic and dramatic.
These opening scenes are some of Harris' best -- even though, under Michael Blakemore's direction, she performs them with more whimsy than bravado. Still, like the theater audience, the tourists have a much better time as the house's history becomes more florid. But is this history? Was the past truly more eventful -- more colorful, as Lettice insists -- than the present? Lettice's employer, by-the-book Lotte Schoen, is horrified by these inventions. She fires Lettice, though she has to admit she admires her spunk.
And so, an odd friendship springs up -- a friendship as central to what this play is about as the theme of historical validity or the accompanying commentary on the blight of modern architecture. Roberta Maxwell adeptly portrays uptight, businesslike Lotte as the opposite of effusive Lettice; it's a common polarity in Shaffer's work. These women, however, not only share an interest in history, they share a sense of being outsiders.
Lest there be any question of how far outside the norm they reside, Shaffer introduces a foil in the third act -- a stuffy lawyer, hilariously played by John Horton as a pinstripe-suited fuddy-duddy who is stunned, fascinated and finally won over by these extraordinary women.
Perhaps to counteract Harris' restraint, the director has added a -- of slapstick. A jarring choice, it not only intrudes on Shaffer's sophisticated subject matter, it further accentuates Harris' understated performance.
"Lovage," by the way, is an herb Lettice uses to make her favorite beverage -- a cordial she claims is "very enlarging." This script certainly has many enlarging properties, but the beverage appears to have had the opposite effect on the leading lady.
'Lettice & Lovage'
When: Tuesdays to Sundays at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through June 6.
Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington.
Call: (202) 628-6161.