NEW YORK — Lettice and Lovage Comedy by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Michael Blakemore. Starring Maggie Smith. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. THE rounds of applause at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre said it all. Dame Maggie Smith, in the long awaited ``Lettice and Lovage,'' was worth waiting for. Broadway playgoers now had their reward in Dame Maggie's fabulous comic performance in the Peter Shaffer comedy that was long a hit in London's West End.
``Lettice and Lovage'' is the comic and sometimes touching tale of an encounter between two opposites. Lettice Douffet (Dame Maggie) first appears on the scene in the gloomy Grand Hall of Fustian House, Wiltshire, England. Standing at the foot of the grand staircase, Lettice is attempting to fix the attention of a gaggle of tourists by recounting how John Fustian earned his knighthood - by breaking the downstairs fall of Queen Elizabeth.
With each new wavelet of visitors, Lettice embellishes the historic moment. Her flights of fancy soon outscale the flight of stairs. When an academic challenges her accuracy, she disdains his impertinence. However, when Lotte Schoen (Margaret Tyzack), her boss from the Fustian Trust, monitors Lettice's latest spiel, it's curtains for the inventive docent. But not for the friendship that Mr. Shaffer thereupon sets in motion.
After a tense interview in Lotte's London office, the scene and the relationship shift to Lettice's Earls Court basement flat, a mini-museum cluttered with historic memorabilia including instruments of execution. Here, Lotte is introduced to goblets of a brew made with lovage. Here also, as Lettice later recalls, the two new friends not only told ``sad stories of the death of kings - and others'' but acted out execution scenes. (Lettice inherited her theatrical flare from a mother who shepherded a French-speaking, all-girl Shakespearean troupe through France, whose favorite roles were Richard III and Falstaff, and whose favorite exhortation was: ``Enlarge! Enlighten! Enliven!'')
A mishap in the course of the Earls Court reenactments has brought the police and charges of attempted murder against Lettice. All a ghastly mistake, of course. And the occasion for a hilarious scene during which a frustrated lawyer (the invaluable Paxton Whitehead) tries vainly to fashion a defense for the uncomprehending Lettice. Mr. Shaffer rescues his heroines from their dilemma with a scheme for guided tours of London's modern architectural monstrosities - an enterprise that would certainly win the approval of Prince Charles.
Dame Maggie's Lettice is a paragon of comic invention and brilliantly calculated affectation. Although mistress of the histrionic gesture - even her flutters can flutter - this sublime comedienne also knows the value of stillness when such is the required response. Miss Tyzack's down-to-earth Lotte is the ideal foil, proving that beneath a prosaic Teutonism there beats a venturesome heart.
The verbal delights of ``Lettice and Lovage'' are counterpointed by a series of amusing sight gags and by one effect that can only be called a coup de th'e^atre (for which Anthony Powell, Dame Maggie's costumer, deserves due credit). Such antic effects are happily orchestrated by director Michael Blakemore. Besides the star and her indispensable partner in highflown fantasy, the cast includes Bette Henritze as Lotte's understandably nervous secretary and a clutch of actors who impersonate the more or less spiel-bound visitors to Fustian House.
The hospitable production was designed by Alan Tagg, with costumes by Frank Kranz and lighting by Ken Billington. According to a Playbill note, ``The various extracts of music, all for brass instruments, were composed in the reigns of the English sovereigns Elizabeth I, James I, and William and Mary.'' Lettice Douffet would approve of that!