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'Lettice & Lovage' is Brit comedy at its quirkiest

Director Linda Ade Brand has forged a very nice career in Kansas City by capturing strong performances in a wide variety of material, and she does it again in the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of Peter Shaffer’s “Lettice & Lovage.”

This is British comedy at its quirkiest. Shaffer’s play is literate and wacky at the same time and the material gives actors a lot to play with. Written more or less as a withering commentary on soulless architecture in modern Britain, the play also presses home the idea that history is much more than a collection of dry facts. It’s something to be revisited and reinvented as a way to escape the tedium of modern life.

The piece opens in the Grand Hall of Fustian House, a Tudor manor maintained by the Preservation Trust, where tour guide Lettice Douffet (Jeanne Averill) freely embellishes the building’s colorless history by inventing increasingly bizarre historical details in order to keep the tourists entertained.

This is met with disapproval by Lotte Schoen (Kathy Kane), who arrives from the Trust office in London to personally investigate the stories of the wildly inaccurate “history” being cooked up by Douffet. Schoen calls Douffet into the London office and dismisses her for not strictly following the official history approved by the Trust.

Ten weeks pass and Schoen unexpectedly pays a visit to Douffet in her basement flat. It seems she’s had a guilty conscious and has found a possible job for Douffet on a tour boat. Douffet is won over and they celebrate by getting drunk; in the process, Schoen reveals an anarchist streak beneath her gray, bureaucratic exterior.

In the third act, we discover that Douffet has been charged with attempted murder for striking Schoen with an ax, but it’s all a misunderstanding. The pair had been acting out famous executions and Schoen’s injury was an accident during a reenactment of the beheading of Charles I.

One could make a reasonable argument that there should be no more three-act comedies because they have a way of wearing out their welcome. This production constitutes an almost three-hour commitment from an audience. And while Shaffer’s wit and erudition yield entertaining and absorbing dialogue, we’ve grasped all the play has to say well before its conclusion.

Nonetheless, the performances carry the day for the most part and more than compensate for the show’s barebones production values. Averill is a hoot as the half-crazed Douffet, a woman from a theatrical family whose natural instinct is to describe everything as bigger, brighter and more fantastic than it really is. As Schoen, Kane has a more challenging transition to meet — going from repressed government official to someone gleefully sharing in Douffet’s historical fantasies, and she delivers an impressive performance. Together they make a delightful odd couple whose eccentricities never seem exaggerated beyond the probable.

Another excellent performance is registered by Michael Dragen who appears in the third act as Bardolph, Douffet’s lawyer whose exasperated, button-down manner soon gives way to unbridled enthusiasm for Douffet’s theatrical history games.

This production offers a few belly laughs but for the most part it entertains in a manner that elicits chuckles and even silent amusement with its sly humor.

“Lettice & Lovage” runs through Jan. 20 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 1824 Walnut. Tickets: $10-$20; 816-536-9464; metkc.org.

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