Critic's Notebook: Benedict Cumberbatch and an All-Star Cast Bring Rich Texture to 'Letters Live'

Benedict Cumberbatch Letters Live NYC - H 2018 Getty
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The 'Sherlock' and 'Doctor Strange' star headlined the NYC debut of this British event featuring acting luminaries reciting missives both moving and hilarious.

All-star theatrical benefit performances can often be deadly dull affairs, more notable for good intentions than entertainment value. Such was definitely not the case with Letters Live, which made its belated New York premiere courtesy of a two-night Town Hall engagement. With Benedict Cumberbatch heading up a truly impressive lineup, Saturday evening's show proved a delight.  

The concept for the production, first performed at London's Tabernacle in 2013, couldn't be simpler: The performers (some announced in advance, others revealed during the evening) stand behind a lectern and read notable letters written by figures both famous and unknown. The missives may have been written in recent years or centuries ago, with an offstage narrator providing brief introductions about their provenance and who will be reading them. 

The results can be sublime, sometimes deeply moving and sometimes utterly hilarious. Examples of the former included Molly Ringwald reading a 1924 letter by Helen Keller to a symphony orchestra in which the blind-deaf-mute author-activist rhapsodized about her joy in appreciating the music by touching a radio's diaphragm and Edie Falco's recitation of a missive written by Patti Smith to her dying friend Robert Mapplethorpe.

Ringwald and Uzo Aduba touchingly delivered 1915 correspondence between the mother of a victim of the sinking of the Lusitania and one of its survivors. The actress, one of several performers to read multiple letters, left not a dry eye in the house with her presentation of a mother's letter to Mr. Rogers about singing his song "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" to her terrified 5-year-old daughter receiving radiation treatments. Equally touching was a reading by Noma Dumezweni (currently Tony nominated for her role as Hermione in Broadway's Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) of a letter to J.K. Rowling written by the mother of a young girl dying of cancer.

Fortunately, there were enough lighthearted moments to keep the evening buoyant. Ben Foster channeled Hunter S. Thompson to brilliant effect with a profanity-laden missive chastising author Anthony Burgess for submitting a 50,000-word novella to Rolling Stone instead of the commissioned think piece. Ian McShane got huge laughs with a brief letter by a World War II-era British diplomat having fun with an obscene-sounding Turkish name. Kyle McLachlan displayed perfect comic timing with a 1932 letter from comedian Fred Allen to an insurance company describing an elaborate series of physical mishaps.

Two letters, read by Lauren Graham and Aduba, respectively, deserve to become classics of consumer complaint. In the first, an airline passenger describes her misery at being seated right across from a lavatory in constant use. In the second, written to the CEO of Procter & Gamble, a customer profanely relates her annoyance at a package of Maxi-Pads for its cheerful message to "have a happy period."

Cumberbatch, not surprisingly, got numerous chances to shine. He didn't disappoint with his superbly acted renditions of a double-entendre-laden letter from a British author to a lover advising her of his case of crabs, a tender note from King George VI to his daughter Elizabeth on the day of her wedding and an amusingly acerbic missive from a lonely Dylan Thomas to his wife complaining about the miseries of his stay in New York.

Nearly all the performers excelled, with other standouts including Laurence Fishburne's superb recitation of a slyly sarcastic 1865 letter written by a freed slave to his former master, who had the temerity to ask him to come work for him again, and Falco's brilliant rendition of a withering open letter from a 67-year-old woman to white supremacists in the aftermath of Charlottesville, Virginia. (On the other hand, there was Chevy Chase, whose stiff, error-filled readings of letters by George Bernard Shaw and Leonard Cohen seemed to indicate that he was encountering them for the first time.)

As is often the case with these sorts of affairs, Letters Live went on a bit too long. But the presentation (which also featured readings by Katie Holmes, James Earl Jones and Clarke Peters, among others) shouldn't be faulted for its abundance of riches. Not to mention that part of the proceeds will be benefiting such worthy organizations as 826NY, devoted to encouraging student writing, and the Entertainment Industry Foundation, which raises funds for various health, educational and social issues.