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A table, two chairs and a pair of actors reading from scripts on an otherwise bare stage sounds like one notch up from a radio play. But A.R. Gurney‘s deceptively simple 1988 epistolary two-hander, Love Letters, is that rare work whose emotional richness requires no embellishment in order to become a full-bodied theatrical experience. All that’s needed are gifted actors capable of tracing the poignant thread of longing and regret that binds half a century of correspondence between characters whose relationship is thwarted by hesitation. And as the first couple in this production’s all-star rotating cast, Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow deliver with impeccable restraint.
Given that the stage directions call for the two actors to read their parts, Gurney’s play has long been popular as a vehicle for benefits, quick tours, regional stops and starry showcases on both coasts. The lack of rehearsal and preparation time required means that it’s also been a magnet for major names in short engagements.
That roster over the years has included Julie Harris, William Hurt, Stockard Channing, Marsha Mason, Christopher Reeve, Holland Taylor, George Segal, Christopher Walken, Colleen Dewhurst, Jason Robards, Lynn Redgrave, Sissy Spacek, Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Daniels, Elizabeth Taylor, James Earl Jones and countless others. This Broadway revival continues that tradition, with a series of marquee-name matchups appearing for roughly a month at a time, among them Carol Burnett, Alan Alda, Candice Bergen, Stacy Keach, Diana Rigg, Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen.
While the play is structurally atypical for Gurney, it sits firmly in the dramatist’s thematic wheelhouse. Arguably no playwright has spent more time contemplating WASP repression, bringing tart observations, caustic dialogue and underlying compassion to the stilted existences of people unwilling or unable to reveal their true feelings. Love Letters is among his more moving works. It brings genuine tenderness to its dual portrait of two New England blue bloods whose lack of courage is a wedge between them. And in the age of texts, tweets and superficial social-media connections, in which handwritten personal correspondence has become a quaint relic of a gentler time, this elegant drama takes on added resonance.
Director Gregory Mosher eschews any tricks for Broadway. There are no scene-setting video elements, no mood-shaping music. Even Peter Kaczorowski‘s warm lighting haloes the actors without undue manipulation as the play progresses from childish teasing through flirtation to tentative romance, from playfulness to melancholy, and finally from hope to constricting reality and sorrow.
Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner meet in the second grade and spend the next 50 years circling one another, acknowledging their mutual attraction, yet only really coming together for fleeting moments at a time. That might sound like Hallmark Channel fodder to anyone unfamiliar with the play. But while this is a modest work, it’s also perceptive in its examination of the moneyed class in 20th century America, the formative imprint of family, and the divergent paths of seeking creative fulfillment as an artist or the rank and prestige of public office.
While they share a well-heeled background and their parents mix in the same social circles, it’s quickly established that Melissa’s family is considerably wealthier though less stable than Andrew’s. He shows signs even as a child of starchy propriety in the notes and cards they exchange, while she’s a free spirit with an artsy bent, prone to mocking him. From the start, scholarly Andrew embraces the written word and its usefulness in carefully calibrated communication, while Melissa favors spontaneity. Particularly as they move through their parallel tracks at all the right prep schools and colleges, she feels that the intimacy of their letters is a hindrance to any potential romantic relationship.
The arc that Gurney traces here is a familiar one, encompassing friendship, sexual awakening, the navigation of adulthood, the search for personal and professional identity, the loss of parental figures, marriage, divorce, depression and the rueful onset of middle age. But the specificity of his writing and the intelligence of the performers make the characters come alive, both as products of their milieu and as reflections of universal experience.
These are classic opposites, both desirous of and circumspect about the respective qualities that draw them to one another yet keep them at a distance. The correspondence often becomes indistinguishable from conversational banter. And meaningful lapses of time are beautifully illustrated, for instance, as a mention of a new romance is followed by a formal wedding invitation, or a calendar appointment in the city segues to the afterglow of an illicit tryst.
Dennehy’s is the more stolid character. His path to eminent respectability, first in the Armed Services, then as a lawyer, and somewhat inevitably, in the Senate seems predestined in the seriousness with which the young Andrew approaches such innocent rites as a preteen Valentine’s Day card or an adolescent request to go steady. Yet there are roiling emotions beneath his surface, notable in his reluctance to discuss an episode with a Japanese war bride, and later, when his political reputation is threatened by his association with Melissa. Dennehy’s contained agitation is touching when Andrew’s judgmental frankness offends, and a reply from Melissa is not forthcoming
Farrow, who hasn’t been on Broadway in 34 years, is quite wonderful in the far more expressive role of the two. She draws a clear, wrenching line from the petulant girl to the flailing, neurotic woman, living her life according to routinely demolished romantic notions of how she imagined it panning out. Even as Melissa is conveying her ambivalence toward the offer of Andrew’s love, you can feel her regretting it. Likewise Andrew, when his sense of obligation prevents him from disentangling himself to be with her.
For a play that starts out so unassumingly, savoring the very ordinariness of much of its characters’ experience, there’s unexpected pathos here. Watching the flickers of amusement, impatience, disapproval, rancor, frustration, jealousy and affection that pass across each actor’s face while his or her co-star reads, there’s a stirring sense of participation in the heartbreak of two lives destined to remain incomplete.
Cast: Brian Dennehy, Mia Farrow
Director: Gregory Mosher
Playwright: A.R. Gurney
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Presented by Nelle Nugent, Barbara Broccoli, Frederick Zollo, Olympia Theatricals, Michael G. Wilson, Lou Spisto, Colleen Camp, Postmark Entertainment Group, Judith Ann Abrams/Pat Flicker Addiss, Kenneth Teaton, in association with Jon Bierman, Daniel Frishwasser, Elliott Masie, Mai Nguyen, Paige Patel, Scott Lane/Joseph Sirola
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