To a theatergoer of 30 years ago, Peter Shaffer's "Lettice and Lovage" would require no explanations, no defense. It is quite simply, a "star vehicle," whose artificialities seem a small price to pay for the sheer pleasure of seeing a great actor perform.
We are unaccustomed to "star vehicles," because, apart from the Cronyns, our theater no longer has its own stars; we have to depend on the kindness of Hollywood.
But if anyone can justify a "star vehicle," it's Maggie Smith.
As powerful as she is in movies or TV, the theater is her true element. Her voice is a theatrical voice. If you heard it in a salesgirl or a telephone operator, its nasality would repel you. But in the theater it seems amazingly musical. It makes every syllable she utters, every distinctly pronounced consonant, every elongated vowel, even in as simple a word as "adaptation," seem fraught with meaning.
Her face is a theatrical face. In profile it has an elegance, even an imperiousness that recalls a time when theater people had no desire to be "just folks." There is a watery sadness in her eyes that humanizes even her most outrageous gestures.
As for her body it seems a slight, spindly thing, but when she extends her thin arms upward (as she often does here, sometimes winsomely leaning her head against one) they take on a commanding tone.
At one point she wears a black cloak three times her size with ludicrously oversized black buttons (as well as a ridiculously large knave's cap with a green and white plume.) A lesser actress might be dwarfed or made to seem clownish in such a costume. Smith carries it almost regally, like a bird of paradise justly proud of its plumage.
Smith plays Lettice Douffet, a tour guide assigned to the most boring castle in England. We see her give her tour first factually, then gradually embroidering it until she turns a black and white documentary into an MGM Technicolor musical.
For this she is fired. But we soon find that her superior, who first seems so severe, shares Lettice's sense of the drabness of modern England: "I cannot accept merely," Douffet declares. "We live in a country now that wants only the mere."
Out of this shared conviction they forge first a friendship, then a plan to waken their fellow citizens to the dreariness of the architecture around them (using methods, however, that might not gain the patronage of Prince Charles.)
As the superior, Margaret Tyzack is a perfect foil for Smith. Where Smith's drawn face is constantly puckish and bedazzled, Tyzack's fleshier visage is an unending study in melancholy and dourness. If Smith's voice is a clarion horn, Tyzack's is a muted cello - deep, mournful, powerful even through clenched teeth. The pairing is incomparable.
There are giddy performances by Bette Henritze and Paxton Whitehead and a physical production (by Alan Tagg) that enhances every drollness.
Michael Blakemore has directed the play expertly. There are moments when Shaffer's inventions seem de trop, but at heart the play is a celebration of the imagination, a celebration of the art of theater. With these celebrants there's great cause for rejoicing.
A tiny phrase, acidulatedly articulated on the tip of her tongue - "I sit corrected." A small thing but marvelously her own, and gloriously Maggie Smith. So, this morning, let's bend a knee in homage, and welcome the return of the Smith of Smiths, the ineffable Dame Maggie, back in town at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, in full swooping flight in one of the most scintillating and witty Broadway comedies in years.
This is no mere one-woman triumph. Playwright Peter Shaffer and his director, Michael Blakemore, have conspired with actresses, the ebulliently bewitching Smith and a queen of more stately necromancy, Margaret Tyzack, to produce an evening of enchantment and delight.
Shaffer has always been concerned with the odd man out - the creature of weird genius unable to slot into society. He is the patron playwright of the non-conforming, the poet of the interestingly, even dangerously, odd.
Lettice Douffet, the heroine of this latest play, "Lettice and Lovage," is certainly interestingly odd - in the mysteriously weaving hands and scooping voice of her incarnator, Dame Maggie, downright, even fascinatingly, eccentric. But dangerous? I think so.
She is an iconoclast, rebelling against the new, the ugly and the "mere." The modern shoddy standardizations of our time. The decline of Western civilization from viciously benign neglect.
Shaffer introduces us to this strange creature as she lectures as a tourist guide in one of the least stately, and least interesting, of England's stately homes.
We hear her first modest account of this Elizabethan mediocrity, Fustian House, and then, as time progresses, we see her lecture progress - theatrically, romantically. She adds color and human interest to this otherwise bald historical account - she limns in lost details, she fantasticates, she invents...she lies. Or, as she herself puts it, "fantasy jumps in when fact leaves a vacuum."
Soon she is not telling the story of Fustian House as it was...but, far more interesting, how it should have been. Her parties of tourists are delighted, scurrying back to drably contemporary lives with a new and vivid impression of merrie, olde Elizabethan England.
Unfortunately their enthusiasm sometimes causes them to write letters to Lettice's employers, the somewhat stiff Preservation Trust, and Lotte Schon, an inspector from the Trust (the unbending Tyzack), comes along to listen to Lettice's uninhibited history lessons.
Appalled by Lettice's disregard for the slate-grey facts of history, the formidable Lotte has no alternative but to call her into the office, and, quite firmly, dismiss her on the spot. But something about Lettice's manner, as well as the grand theatrical gesture she makes on her departure, intrigues Lotte, and 10 weeks after she had fired this odd lady, the implacable civil servant finds herself ringing the bell on Lettice's basement flat in Earls Court, with a kind of peace offering.
Strangely enough the two women find a great deal in common - partly a love of the old. Lotte is also fascinated by Lettice's bizarre past, and with stories of her mother - an actress who married an absentee Frenchman, and formed an all-woman theater company in France performing nothing but Shakespeare in French translation!
Lettice's mother was most highly regarded for her Richard III and Falstaff - she wore much the same costume for both, pulling round the cushion that provided her with Richard's hump to do service as Sir John's belly.
Lettice and Lotte strike up an alliance - and in celebration of their new-found friendship toast themselves mightily in a brew that Lettice (who seems an expert in the food and drink of Tudor times) calls Quaff.
It appears to be made largely of that traditional honey-liquor, mead - mellowed by the use of the Elizabethan herb "lovage," but strengthened somewhat, one presumes with more imagination that strict authenticity, by large doses of vodka. For these first two acts of the play - nothing could be more charming or more dazzling. It is Shaffer at his iridescent best, and the language flows from him as if from a barrage of baroque fountains.
Unfortunately not only must plays end, they must be ended. When I first saw "Lettice and Lovage" in London, it had one ending, and this Shaffer has now slightly, but very materially changed, to its distinct betterment.
But it must be admitted that the last act - partly because it has to pursue its initial precept of thoroughly sane absurdity to some logical conclusion, and partly because little could live up to the coruscating expectations raised by the first two acts - is very slightly, a letdown.
Fortunately, this is where Blakemore and the actors plunge in and effortlessly save a night never in serious doubt. While they can't provide a third act that would conceivably enable "Lettice and Lovage" to take its place as one of our classic comedies, basing themselves on Shaffer's ceaseless felicity of language, they can at least make it satisfying enough in all conscience.
Blakemore, here materially assisted by the designs of Alan Tagg and the lighting of Ken Billington, is a wondrously unobtrusive yet consummately dexterous director - you never quite see what he does, but the resultant spontaneity of staging becomes in itself his own trademark.
As we noticed in his staging of "Noises Off," or his present Broadway hit, "City of Angels," he is a master at persuading actors to present a blend of the unnaturally natural and the naturally unnatural.
He works with Dame Maggie perfectly, and she responds with a great performance of exultant yet febrile radiance. Lettice's mother, Shaffer tells us, used to exhort the world with a cry of "enlarge, enliven, enlighten."
Dame Maggie goes about that work of enlarging, enlivening and enlightening with a fevered gusto, a fierce extravagance yet an unbending good taste. Her acting, while deliciously larger than life, never for a second forgets the life it is larger than. Tyzack provides the perfect counterweight to Dame Maggie, and they play together like friendly dolphins in sunny seas. Tyzack's slightly embittered civil servant with the naughty soul of a poet proves a most handsomely layered portrait - the subtlety with which she betrays her inner feelings is compellingly beautiful.
Apart from these two grand dames grand daming, there are most attractive performances from Bette Henritze as a nervy, middle-aged secretary to Tyzack's bureaucratic battle-axe, and an exquisitely poised comic cameo from Paxton Whitehead as a bemused lawyer, trying to make some kind of sense out of Lettice, his wayward client.
And, of course, at the heart of the evening is this unforgettable meeting between those two archetypal odd men out, Shaffer and Smith, words and voice, made for each other.
There is only one Maggie Smith, but audiences get at least three of her in ''Lettice and Lovage,'' the Peter Shaffer comedy that has brought this spellbinding actress back to Broadway after an indecently long absence and that has the shrewd sense to keep her glued to center stage.
As Lettice Douffet, the most eccentric tour guide ever to lead bored American and Japanese visitors through one of England's dullest stately homes, Miss Smith is, for much of Act I, the dazzling revue comedienne she once was, dashing up and down a dark Tudor staircase while dispensing historical arcana and restroom directions with equally mad aplomb. Well, Miss Smith is not running, actually - she just seems to be. Her long arms are in windmill motion, as if she were directing traffic at a rush-hour intersection. Her voice, the only good argument yet advanced for the existence of sinus passages, tucks an extra syllable or two into words already as chewy as ''escutcheon.'' Her moon-shaped eyes, framed by cascading red curls, are as mischievous and wide and darting as those of Lettice's beloved pet cat.
The other Maggie Smiths on view at the Barrymore are no less extravagant, no less endearing. Eventually asked to share the stage, or at least cohabit it, with another actress, the estimable Margaret Tyzack, the star becomes the stylized classicist who can italicize a line as prosaic as ''Have you no marmalade?'' until it sounds like a freshly minted epigram by Coward or Wilde. Later still, Miss Smith is permitted a moment as a tragedian: she stands in the shadows of Lettice's basement flat - a lonely woman for an instant deserted by her usual ebullience - and reveals her age and isolation through a veil of very small tears.
But that is about the only instance when Miss Smith comes to parade rest in ''Lettice and Lovage''; at times this inexhaustible entertainer even switches outrageous costumes in mid-scene. The exertion is needed. Mr. Shaffer's play, his first out-and-out comedy since ''Black Comedy'' in 1964, is a slight if harmless confection that at first matches Miss Smith's bracing energy but by Act III must be bolstered by it. The jig would be up far earlier in the evening if anyone were so stupid as to ask the star to sit still.
''Lettice and Lovage'' is essentially a high camp, female version of the archetypal Shaffer play, most recently exemplified by ''Equus'' and ''Amadeus,'' in which two men, one representing creativity and ecstatic passion and the other mediocrity and sterility, battle for dominance. In this case, the free spirit is Lettice, a lover of history and theater and a sworn enemy of all in life that is ''mere.'' Lettice, who is inevitably referred to as incorrigible, loses her tour-guide job because she embellishes the official history of Fustian House in Wiltshire with outlandish Elizabethan fantasies (which are repeated in four riotous variations in Mr. Shaffer's bravura opening scene). The stick-in-the-mud who sacks her, played by Miss Tyzack, is Lotte Schoen, a gray personnel bureaucrat who worships fact as much as Lettice reveres romantic fancy.
What makes this variation on the Shaffer formula less compelling than its predecessors is not so much its comic tone - there are, rest assured, no horses blinded here - as its lackadaisical dramatic structure and its shallow characterizations. The conflict between Lettice and Lotte is resolved fairly early, for it only takes a little lovage, an herb Lettice uses to brew an Elizabethan cordial, to turn them into bosom buddies.
Once these apparently asexual spinsters warm to each other, the author elects to arrest their development. Lotte is stripped of her wig but not down to her soul, thereby robbing Miss Tyzack's flawless performance of the opportunity for a touching metamorphosis. Lettice's relationship to her former adversary remains jokey rather than intimate. The jokes, though written by Mr. Shaffer with a sure sense of the virtuoso instruments at his disposal, deliver more nostalgic tickles than laughter. They're largely impersonal gibes at the dehumanizing modern London the women discover they both deplore: a city full of automated teller machines and the sterile office towers that so nettle the Prince of Wales.
For all of his detestation of automation, Mr. Shaffer is not above using an intercom to keep his play going when all else fails. And too often he provides only a mere pastiche of civilized wit - the kind that impresses American Anglophiles on trust-house tours - by packing in references to Latin etymologies and the Shakespearean antics of Lettice's actress-mother or by having his characters deliver crowd-pleasing endorsements of yesteryear's values. The zingers promised by the actresses' sharp diction only occasionally materialize, and they're closer in tone to ''Auntie Mame'' than ''The Madwoman of Chaillot.'' In place of Mame's motto of ''Live! Live! Live!'' is Lettice's of ''Enlarge! Enliven! Enlighten!'' and, like Patrick Dennis's heroine, Mr. Shaffer's is dismissed from temporary employment at a department store and must win over a mousy secretary (Bette Henritze) and a stuffy lawyer (Paxton Whitehead) with her bohemian ways.
The staging, by Michael Blakemore, is as airtight as one expects from the director of ''City of Angels'' and ''Noises Off.'' Or so it is until Act III, which, though given a new and pandering final curtain since the London premiere, still becomes mired in a complex narrative of preposterous offstage events that turn out not to matter anyway. While Alan Tagg's scenic design and Ken Billington's lighting practice an excess of dowdy realism in depicting the gloom of Lettice's Earl's Court flat, Miss Smith's personality so saturates everything around her that, like the character she plays, she instantly floods a world of gray with color. This is idiosyncratic theater acting of a high and endangered order, not to be confused with the actress's tightly minimalistic film work. If ''Lettice and Lovage'' is but a modest excuse for it, what theaterlover needs any excuse whatsoever to have a rare reunion with Maggie Smith?