What happens when a bit of harmless Mary Queen of Scots cosplay results in a near beheading? To find that out, you'll need to reserve tickets for Lettice and Lovage, an intensely British comedy that was first staged in 1987 but feels like it might have been written with modern Memphis in mind. If you're the sort of person who's ever signed a petition to save the Nineteenth Century Club, or carried a sign to protest parking on the Overton Park Greensward, or gotten verklempt because some solid piece of architecture was demolished to make room for a Family Dollar, the jokes will resonate. To make things even more Memphis-esque, there's a magnificent ritualized #wigsnatch near the end of act two.
Lettice and Lovage playwright Peter Shaffer is best known for weighty dramas like Equus and Amadeus, but the man could flat write a gag. If Lettice seems like a trifle compared to his more frequently produced tragedies, it's a funny trifle, and more than a little wise. The New Moon Theatre Company's current production may be austere, but it's "enlarged, enlivened, and enlightened" in every way by a pair of finely tuned performances from Sarah Brown and Anita "Jo" Lenhart. Their meandering scenes are a real treat for theatergoers with a taste for quirk.
Brown plays Lettice Douffet, a tour guide with a flair for the dramatic, a lust for the life less "mere," and a terrible reputation for straying from history's facts whenever the facts are too damn boring to repeat in front of a live audience. Lettice's gross historical embellishments bring her into conflict with Lenhart's Lotte Schoen, an administrator for the historical preservation society who seems buttoned up but is truthfully on the verge of complete radicalization.
Shaffer's comedy of little old ladies planning acts of violent terrorism is bottom-heavy and wears out its welcome somewhere in the middle of an ample third act. Brown and Lenhart are so full of life and fun to watch it doesn't matter.
Marriage to an Older Woman isn't "must-see" theater. John Fritz's obscure-for-a-reason play introduces us to Babs, a 73-year-old free spirit who upsets her daughter by marrying a wealthy but uptight 60-year-old stranger on a cruise ship. It's situation comedy that plays like the never-aired pilot to a failed Love Boat spin-off. It's not unwatchable, but it's not a strong "hello" for Memphis' newest theater company, Cloud 9.
Marriage to an Older Woman was originally produced in Memphis by Playwrights Forum and is fondly remembered in some circles due to strong performances by a pair of actresses who are no longer with us: Dorothy Blackwood and Laurie Cook McIntosh. Cloud 9's cast is capable, but it's not Blackwood/McIntosh capable, and the material isn't strong enough to merit revival.
It's been said — and rightly, I think — that you shouldn't produce a gun on stage unless somebody's going to use it. Something similar might be said about the half-dozen ukuleles and other musical props decorating the set of Marriage to an Older Woman, a play that, as near as I can tell, has absolutely nothing to do with ukuleles or music of any kind. Nevertheless, various instruments hang on the wall and lurk in corners, waiting for somebody to pick them up and make noise. The play has even less to do with Marty Robbins, the great country crooner whose face is conspicuously displayed on the back wall like the picture of Tom Wingfield's absentee father in The Glass Menagerie. Just as the presence of a firearm might create a sense of impending danger, these kinds of props create a different kind of anticipation that competes with the script for attention. Unfortunately, the promise of song and some textual connection to the famous El Paso balladeer is more intriguing than anything that ever happens in the play. It's an itch that's never scratched in a show where even the longest scene transitions occur in silent blackouts.