'Love Letters': Theater Review

Courtesy of Jason Gillman
Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal in 'Love Letters'

Inspired casting of an iconic baby boomer couple.

'Love Story' stars Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal reunite 45 years on for the national tour of A.R. Gurney's epistolary two-hander about a lifelong relationship.

Over the years, dozens of actors from film, TV and theater have perused the letters of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, star-crossed lovers of A.R. Gurney’s perennial favorite, Love Letters. But no pairing comes as loaded as that of Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal. First seen together in the 1970 screen classic Love Story, the couple has reunited for a national tour of the two-character play, kicking off in Beverly Hills.

The idea came to producers after reading an article in The Hollywood Reporter that pictured the co-stars together after 45 years. In that time, O’Neal and MacGraw have seen their fair share of ups and downs — rehab, divorces and deaths, not unlike the characters they play in Love Letters. The mix of nostalgia and real-life drama is a heady concoction, especially for baby boomers, laying down much of the emotional groundwork of the play before the curtain even opens.

MacGraw and O’Neal look like a real-life couple as they enter the stage, putting on reading glasses as they take their seats. Their words transport the audience back to its youth as the couple exchange valentines and birthday cards that later become flirty and filled with boarding school gossip. Some letters are lengthy, especially those by Andy, a bloviating future Republican senator, while others are single-sentence exchanges, almost like texting.

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Gurney is a product of the New England upper crust, frequently centering his plays, such as The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour, among WASPS and one-percenters. MacGraw, a native of Pound Ridge, New York, was raised in such circles in a family of artists, traits she shares with her character. Her Melissa is adventurous and impulsive in both artistic and romantic endeavors, while Andy grows to become a respected lawyer not given to introspection. Over 50 years, their letters capture the innocence of childhood, the insouciance of adolescence, effervescent self-discovery and, finally, somber disappointment. Frank L. Baum’s The Lost Princess of Oz becomes a metaphor for Melissa, just as Paradise Lost describes the arc of their relationship.

From early on, Melissa implores Andy to stop writing and communicate by phone, a point revisited as tragedy looms. Over time, they find their letters have created constructs that defy expectations when they meet face to face, undermining any relationship beyond the epistolary. It is the most compelling element of Love Letters: the fact that their chosen instrument of communication becomes the very thing that stands between them.

No doubt the emotional veracity of Gurney's writing is part of what has drawn so many notable actors over the years, but the play also represents a relatively easy professional commitment. Costume, makeup, props and lighting are minimal, and little rehearsal is needed since all that’s required is reading from a book of letters.

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Tony-winner Gregory Mosher (Our Town) first staged this production in a commercially disappointing 2014 Broadway run that opened with Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow in the roles. He was directing Antigone in South Africa during the tour’s tryout this summer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but according to O’Neal had no notes for his cast after seeing them perform the play. 

MacGraw, making only her second stage appearance after her Broadway debut in 2006’s Festen, shifts subtly from the bravado of youth to the heartbreak and disillusionment of adulthood, imbuing Melissa with a quiet pathos. At 74, O’Neal makes his stage debut, easily personifying Andy in his later years, but anachronistically displaying a similar demeanor in the early youthful passages. And although he often sounds more like he’s deciphering the letters than writing them, he will no doubt find his rhythm in time. Regardless, the spirit of the piece survives intact.

Love Letters takes a melodramatic turn toward the end, setting up Andy’s lachrymose speech that closes the play. O’Neal’s work in these moments smoothly complements MacGraw’s quiet suffering, and no doubt stirred many in the audience who recalled Oliver from Love Story sitting alone at the movie's end, accompanied by the melancholy strains of Francis Lai’s score. It’s not that Love Letters contains enough parallels to serve as a sequel to the film; it doesn’t. But it’s a case of the cast upstaging the material in the best way. If the play is indeed the thing, in this case the cast makes it more so.

Cast: Ali MacGraw, Ryan O’Neal
Director: Gregory Mosher
Playwright: A.R. Gurney
Set and lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer

Presented by Love Letters Tour, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts