By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Apr 12, 2015 at 10:13 AM

For a little over two hours Saturday night, two of the finest actors in this city spun a web made of the kind of frothy concoction you can only find in live theater, and they carried a delighted audience with them on this fanciful journey.

And then came the final 10 minutes. But more on that later.

It was opening night for "Lettice & Lovage," the frothy comedy by Peter Shaffer, a British playwright known more for his intense dramatic work than for his comedies.

Shaffer was friends with actor Maggie Smith, for whom he wrote this play in 1987 and created the character of Lettice Douffet. It’s a very British play and enjoyed great popularity in England, but the reception was lukewarm and the run fairly short once it moved to America.

From the earliest moments of this play, it’s crystal clear that it is a vehicle for one star, in this case Laura Gordon, and one more outstanding actor, in this case Carrie Hitchcock.

It opens with Lettice (Gordon) showing up as a docent and tour guide through the halls of Fustian House, a grand hall outside London. Lettice is a theatrical maven and on a daily basis strays from the factual history of the site into an ever more dramatic and exaggerated history of a structure that holds no legitimate interest.

Enter Lotte Schoen (Hitchcock) who is the personnel director for the trust that administers the tours of these buildings. She has received word that Lettice strays a long way from the facts of the matter and has come to see for herself. Disguised as a member of the tour group, she is appalled by license that Lettice is taking with the facts.

Summoning her to London the very next day, she fires Lettice and tries as best she can to withstand the overwhelming drama of this lady.

This play is marvelously funny. Lettice is everything that a drama queen needs to be. She is fearless and over the top. The facts never get in the way of a good story. She is a coat of many colors.

Lotte, in contrast, is grey. She wears grey. She looks grey. She acts grey. She is the embodiment of the pallor that Schaffer views part of the world around him.

The meeting in Lotte’s office is preceded by the appearance of Lotte’s assistant, Emily Vitrano, who threatens to steal the show with her obsequious attention to her boss. It’s a delightful few moments in this play.

After the firing, Lotte pays a visit to Lettice, unable to get the woman off her mind. Her coat of armor has clearly been pierced by the brief brush they shared. She has brought with her a letter of recommendation and a lead on a new job.

With help from a concoction prepared by Lettice, the two women move toward each other and toward something that resembles a friendship. The meeting in Lattice’s apartment is a very feminine meeting, with a kind of gentle and willing movement together. I couldn’t imagine men acting in such a civilized manner.

The first act is a wonderful character study of two women of wildly diverse backgrounds, cultural appetite and promise. The story is not the thing in the first act. It is the people who are the thing, and it is a mesmerizing hour.

As the second act opens, we get the hint that something other than a character study is afoot.

Mr. Bardolph (Bryce Lord) is a lawyer, sitting with Lettice, trying to get her to explain why she has been charged with the attempted axe-murder of Lotte.

Lettice is at first reluctant to discuss the entire matter, but Bardolph gradually prevails. The reveal is halting, until Lotte arrives complete with head bandage.

It seems that the two women had, over the course of the last six months, become friends. And part of their friendship was to act out the trials and deaths of famous characters, both real and from the world of literature.

It turns out that they were acting out the beheading of Charles I when a cat jumped on Lotte, causing her to rise in shock and to make the axe graze her scalp. There was no attempted murder.

But the journey to finding that out is rife with spectacular humor, highlighted by Lord’s making the sound of a drum as Lettice prepares to become the executioner. His work is worth the price of admission.

So far, so good. Not a big deal as far as story goes but a bunch of really interesting and funny characters. This was two hours and ten minutes (including a 15 minute intermission) of great fun.

Then they created an ending that strained all belief. Lotte was struck with the brilliant idea to form a tour company with just her and Lettice. They were going to conduct tours of the 50 ugliest buildings in England built after the war.

Oh, my God. The joy of it! The delicious fortune that will be made! The togetherness!

Two of Milwaukee’s very best, Gordon and Hitchcock, trapped in a contrivance that did not do justice to either of them or to what had been a marvelously good time.

"Lettice & Lovage" runs through May 3, and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.