Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Theater Review: A.R. Gurney’s ‘Love Letters,’ at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre

A cynic would explain the many productions of Love Letters as the result of its low production costs: only an actor and actress, wearing comfortable everyday clothes, sitting at a table with scripts in front of them— no large casts, musicians, costumes, special effects or even prompters. But that explanation, though not without merit, fails to account for the cleverness and heart that playwright A.R. Gurney invests in this comedy-drama about the complicated half-century relationship of two prep-school friends.

The production going on now at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre is directed by one man, Gregory Mosher, but in a real sense, audiences will be seeing a different play each time a cast member changes. The Wednesday matinee I caught was one of the last three performances by Mia Farrow, who was succeeded this week by Carol Burnett. (Between now and February 1, actors will last between 30 and 40 performances, with the current male lead, Brian Dennehy, being succeeded by Alan Alda, Stacy Keach and Martin Sheen, and Ms. Burnett followed by Candice Bergen, Diana Rigg and Anjelica Huston.)

I’m sure Ms. Burnett, one of the great comic actors of our time, will mine every nanosecond of humor from the role of artist Melissa Gardner, a rebellious daughter of the East Coast elite. But Broadway appearances by Ms. Farrow are rare (aside from a one-night benefit reading of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 10 years ago, her last time on stage on the Great White Way was back in 1980, in Bernard Slade’s Romantic Comedy). Given her intense humanitarian efforts, it could be quite a long while before we see her back, so I jumped at the chance to see her.

I was not disappointed. It wasn’t a reading that Ms. Farrow gave so much as a total inhabitation of her character. She might be turning 70 next year, but the years seemed to melt away as she summoned the girlish cadences of Melissa wondering about her birthday gift from fellow grade-schooler Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (“I don't believe what you wrote. I think my mother told your mother to get that book.”) She pouts, grimaces, giggles, shivers, curls up in pain—in fitting contrast to Mr. Dennehy, playing Andy as rock-solid and enduring.

Melissa disdains letters so much that she hates reading them, let alone writing them. In contrast, Andy—more strait-laced, if stuffy, than his friend—finds in letter-writing a corrective to the frequent silly rules and personal wounds inflicted by their upbringing. His rationale is so eloquently expressed that is difficult not to regard Andy (if only on this point) as a stand-in for his creator:

“They gave us an out in the Land of Oz. They made us write. They didn't make us write particularly well. And they didn't always give us important things to write about. But they did make us sit down, and organize our thoughts, and convey those thoughts on paper as clearly as we could to another person. Thank God for that. That saved us. Or at least it saved me. So I have to keep writing letters. If I can't write them to you, I have to write them to someone else. I don't think I could ever stop writing completely.”

Yet, as much as this two-hander deals in words, it also finds a world of meaning in silence and the WASP code of decorum and reticence. Several times, when either Andy or Melissa crosses a boundary, the response from the other is silence. Tight-lipped responses also inevitably reverberate throughout the play. Andy writes that he is returning to the United States without the Japanese woman he wed while stationed abroad with the Navy, and that will be the only thing he will ever express on the subject. More devastatingly, just as her emotional conflicts begin in earnest, Melissa discloses that her stepfather, Hooper McPhail, ''was a jerk and a pill, and he used to bother me in bed, if you must know.''

If this were a conventional romantic comedy, Andy and Melissa, despite differences in temperament and class (she comes from Old Money, he must climb his way into The Establishment), would carry all before them. But their deep-seated feelings for each other only come out indirectly, and the time, more often than not, is out of joint for them.

The running time of the play is only an hour and a half, without intermission, but it feels like everything essential about the lives of two characters over 50 years has been said. Their correspondence, as interpreted by two magnificent actors, constitutes a collective book of laughter and regretting.

(By the way, there is a very fine profile of Dennehy by Joseph Amodio in the Fall 2014 issue of Promenade Magazine, featuring wonderful photos by my college classmate Ari Mintz that capture the actor in all his warmth and charm.)

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