Love Letters, a Theatre Review by Scott Klavan
Love Letters by A.R. Gurney
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th Street, New York, NY
Reviewed by Scott Klavan on October 16, 2014
Love Letters is a tribute to the unmodern. The two-character play by A.R. Gurney from 1989, explores a years-long relationship between an affluent white man and woman through the voluminous amount of hand-written letters they send to each other by regular mail. Read by seated actors from scripts, the stage action is only described, expressed with refinement, reserve, wry jokes, and bursts of longing; the actors speak out, never look directly at each other, and never touch. Love Letters is being given a well-turned revival at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre, with a revolving cast of veteran stars. This reviewer saw Brian Dennehy—continuing a performance he began with Mia Farrow—and Carol Burnett, who had joined the production a few days before.
Dennehy plays Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, and Burnett, Melissa Gardner, and the tale begins with the two as children, from the WASP upscale East Coast, writing flirtatious or belligerent notes to each other in classrooms, then, as adolescents, full letters describing their youthful crushes, aims and disappointments. Andrew and Melissa are friends, always; inclined to romance, sometimes. Andrew, from a stable family, with attentive parents, is mediocre at sports, but loves to write. Melissa, the wealthier of the two, has a hard-drinking mother and a painful home life. She finds stability in her correspondences—both bitingly humorous and plaintive—with serious Andrew, whose feet are perpetually on the ground.
As the two go off to separate boarding schools, their letters continue: Andrew is shy with girls, but gets good grades, Melissa increasingly in trouble with uncontrolled impulses and bouts of depression. In a few years, the two, dating others, finally decide to meet at a motel. But the encounter is a failure and the two are awkward turning platonic to sex. Andrew, pressured, pronounces himself a “dud.” After graduation, both date and marry others, and Andrew, a lawyer, moves up the ladder of his firm. Melissa, a painter, has volatile failed marriages, mirroring her mother, and spends time in rehab facilities. Melissa loses custody of her children to her ex, Andrew has three sons with his loving, society wife. As Andrew goes into politics, he and Melissa are estranged, reconnect, and eventually, in middle age, begin a full affair, endangering his career. The physical relationship ends. Andrew survives reelection; Melissa doesn’t make it.
Gurney’s play is upfront about its promotion of what it describes as the “dying art” of letter writing, which, as Andrew attests, gives the writer a chance to express the best part of oneself. It extols the time, care and discipline needed to craft a sincere and genuine response, to say what you really mean, to find and offer the Unseen Essential, unknown by anyone other than the writer, and often foreign to the writer him/herself, until the words are on the page. The search for that tender, perfect mystery, living apart from the visible world, the butterfly dancing over our fingers, is nicely captured in the piece; though the word is never spoken, it is the Soul that hovers above Andrew and Melissa’s halting in-and-out epistolary relationship.
This sense of slow, inner exploration through words, the ache and yearning for something undefined yet palpable, seems increasingly distant from our contemporary computer culture of rushed, easy, simplistic, and coarse emails, texts, etc., correspondence dedicated to keeping things moving and determinedly keeping us running from the kind of search and depth that Andrew and Melissa enthusiastically pursue. (A disconnect that will likely prevent much of the younger audience from relating to, and attending, this show.) In Love Letters and the dozens of other of his works over the past 40 years, written exclusively for the theater, rather than TV or film, The Dining Room to The Cocktail Hour to The Old Boy, A.R. Gurney, now 83, remains a mannerly reminder, mourner, and satirist of this other time.
The staging concept of the play—that actors read from texts throughout—has always been seen as a device by the good-hearted and a gimmick by the stern. But it is gradually accepted and forgotten as the performance takes shape. Certainly, the piece has been a staple at regional and community theaters for 25 years. A similar style is employed in the recent Dear Elizabeth, by Sarah Ruhl, which uses the real-life letters of poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.
The text’s strongest moments are in the first half, during the 1940s, in which the young Andrew and Melissa attend prep schools and flirt, fight and express sporadic affection for each other. Andrew’s closeness with his father, his naïve dedication/rebellion in regards to his schoolwork, Melissa’s bitter humor over her hurtful relationship with her mother, artfully reflect a young man with too much restraint for his age, and a young woman forced too early into cynical sophistication, and pain.
As the pair age and Andrew heads into ambitious politics and Melissa into rehab and loneliness, Gurney unfortunately crafts an excess of “plot,” which ultimately requires that the characters physically get together, causing a scandal that nearly upends Andrew’s reelection campaign. The relationship, and the play, loses its just-miss, ephemeral feel, its heartbreak, and comes down to earth. In what seems an unwise choice, Andrew’s final letter, a tribute to the late Melissa, is interrupted at points by Melissa’s response. This seems to undercut the pathos and the theme. Isn’t the counterpoint to all the words and letters, the dogged attempts at communication, an unalterable silence? Without the thing we are trying to preclude and escape, without the final stillness, it all runs the risk of becoming chatter.
It is nice to see Carol Burnett return to the stage; her first Broadway credit, Once Upon A Mattress, was in 1959, the most recent, her own play Hollywood Arms, eleven years ago. She reads the text with assurance, subtlety and feeling. Perhaps trying to avoid any comparisons to her famous TV comic characters, however, Burnett does not attempt much of the characterization of Melissa, a sharp-tongued brittle lady who describes herself in her later years as a “boozy broad.” But her reading of the sequence where Melissa suffers a breakdown and loses custody of her children is richly heartfelt.
Brian Dennehy has been a regular presence on stage for twenty years, and is what used to be called a “valuable” actor, a needed type, hard to find, and while he may not be at the level of some of the players—Lee J. Cobb, Frederic March, et al.—who preceded him in roles in such bravura, fantastically difficult pieces as Death Of A Salesman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he has always been able to hack it, and that is important. Here, his stocky, even intimidating physicality is somewhat at odds with the man Melissa says needs to be made more “rough.” But Dennehy reads with an affecting earnestness and humanity. The two get the play across.
It is kind of unclear what a director would do with a play that has no lights, sound, or staging, or with performers that have, combined, about 100 years of experience. But Gregory Mosher, the head of Lincoln Center Theater from 1985 to 1991, places the actors in a simple, handsomely stark setting, their large wooden table sitting in front of a simulated backstage area, complete with ghost light. The play is performed with focus, and pacing in the 90-minute piece is brisk; sometimes the best direction is the least noticeable.
Modernity does score in one major area. The use of mic-ing, ubiquitous now, and sometimes discordant and a pain, is useful here, affording the audience a chance to see accomplished, well-loved performers you might otherwise miss; upcoming casts include Alan Alda paired with Candice Bergen, Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg, and Anjelica Huston with Martin Sheen. The explosion of affection from the audience for Burnett and Dennehy during the curtain call, was as touching as the play’s best scenes.
Putting this work on stage, playwright Gurney meshes two antique arts: letter-writing and theater. These disciplines bring up desires, beliefs and practices of a fading culture, one we are fast replacing with things blunt, less complex; more apparent, less mysterious; facile, less eloquent. Love Letters shows us that its loss, like the ghost light, shadows us.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club, and in regional theater. In 2014, he shot a featured role in the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Currently, he is curating new work at Emerging Artists Theatre and directing the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, with a sold-out performance October 28 and an added performance on Friday, November 7, at 9 PM.