Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 18, 2014
Love Letters by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jane Grenwood. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Cast schedule: Saturday, September 13, 2014, through Friday, October 10, 2014 Brian Dennehy & Mia Farrow - Saturday, October 11, 2014, through Saturday, November 8, 2014 Carol Burnett & Brian Dennehy - Sunday, November 9, 2014 through Friday, December 5, 2014 Alan Alda & Candice Bergen - Saturday, December 6, 2014, through Friday, January 9, 2015 Stacy Keach & Diana Rigg - Saturday, January 10, 2015, through Sunday, February 15, 2015 Anjelica Huston & Martin Sheen.
But, truth be told, Love Letters was old-fashioned the first time around, in the spit-shined way that so many of Gurney's plays are. Like many of his most distinctive, best-known works, it vividly summons a time and a people that reflect how we view contemporary class distinctions and ourselves. These issues may be hovering on the periphery here, but they're hovering just the same, and hint at the atmosphere of personal and financial entitlement that makes good people bad and bad people big. That it's all couched in the roller-coaster relationship between Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner is somewhat incidental: The life and the country they represent are, if anything, more potent than the actual words they exchange.
Because, for the most part, those words are fairly banal. The everyday chit-chat of second graders, thank you notes, one-line postcards, and (eventually) form letters that constitute the bulk of their correspondence conveys little on its own. As is frequently the case, however, subtext is everything, and through these ordinary messages we see how their feelings for each other are sparked, developed, explored, and dampened, and what that means for the actual human beings behind them. When bigger events do occura tryst in college, the death of a family memberthey are, in many ways, less profound because they're more expected. The unassuming trials, the nonchalant confessions, and especially the plaintive cries against replies that have not been received, carry a great deal more weight.
To the extent that anything does carry weight, that is. Given that it represents readers' theatre at its most unapologetic (John Lee Beatty's set consists of a single table at which the performers are perched with their scripts and, well, very little else), Love Letters is a play of but one gentle accomplishment: the demonstration of the power words bear in their rawest form. Committing sentences to a page is, even at its most casual, an art, and a single misstep can have profound implications when preserved for (more or less) eternity that a spoken delectation or rebuke may not. If there's some passion and (slightly less) drama in how Andrew and Melissa are brought together by their letters, the only constant they share, and then subsequently torn apart by them as the years progress, what comes to be even more importantto the text and to the production that houses itis the lesson that the sender's intent and the reader's interpretation must be in sync. On their own, the shape words give to our lives and personalities is amorphous at best.
So the play's trademark "gimmick," of utilizing numerous rotating pairs of celebrity actors to play Andrew and Melissa, does in some way underscore its theme. And plenty of big names have already been announced as appearing in this production in the coming months: Alan Alda, Candice Bergen, Anjelica Huston, Stacy Keach, Diana Rigg, and Martin Sheen among them. The individual performers' unique personalities will reconfigure and refocus the show on their own, and change still more depending on their partner; though Andrew and Melissa, by necessity, interact only indirectly, each is distinct enough that a comic voice of this pungency or a heavier dramatic approach could have a significant impact and pay enormous dividends.
The opening cast alone is a formidable one. Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow, playing together through October 10, are almost an academic study in contrastshe stalky and imposing, she flighty and almost waifishbut one that underscores the impossibility inherent in what the characters are attempting. Dennehy shifts between leaning back in his chair and pressing far forward with his head as if interrogating someone, revealing both Andrew's obvious political trajectory and showing how his natural confidence and insecurity are forever at war with one another. Farrow shrugs off most every line, branding her Melissa as a go-along-to-get-along type, only to shatter that illusion with screeching wails, desperate babblings, and sigh-choked resignation as it becomes clear that Melissa's dreams and Andrew's will never be in absolute sync.
Dennehy and Farrow are not a pairing one can immediately fathom and, indeed, the performers highlight most the unease at the center of their story, as if their characters believe on some level that they're not destined to work out together. But the actors' crisp professionalism and obvious camaraderie overlays a warmth that lets us understand precisely why they're so intent on trying, and the precise nature of that conflict is what keeps this duo aloft. The chemistry will obviously be entirely different when Carol Burnett takes over from Farrow on October 11 and plays opposite Dennehy, and future recasting will spin the basic idea off into even more unforeseeable directions.
If that makes Love Letters a kind of tribute to the power of the performer, it's ultimately still pretty slight, and that will diminish the allure of returning for multiple visits for many who aren't huge fans of whatever stars are currently headlining. But with any cast it's a basically pleasant reminder of the way things used to be, when even for the simple titans who ruled America there was no greater thrill than the mailman bringing a new missive that was loaded with the dual weights of expectation and time. In the instant-read, one-click world of today, it's a tough joy to explain (or even remember), but it's one that, thanks to Gurney's out-of-date yet ageless exploration of it, can still hold you in its sepia-toned, light-touched thrall.