By Karen Isaacs
Let’s start by admitting a bias: I LOVE the works of A.R. Gurney. From the first play of his I ever saw — I think it was The Middle Ages with Swoozy Kurtz among others — I respond to his plays. I see hidden depths and true understanding of the human condition.
Secondly — I saw the original production of Love Letters at Long Wharf Theater in 1988 and I’ve seen it several times since.
So, I was pleased when a Broadway revival was announced.
Love Letters is just that — two actors reading a series of letter the two of them wrote to each other from their childhood to well into adulthood. Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner grow up in the same affluent society of boarding schools, dancing classes, and elite colleges. It is a society where politeness and the social graces are valued but also a society where feelings are often hidden, doing what is proper is expected, and parents perpare children to follow a rigid path to success.
The letters begin with a thank you note from Andrew to Melissa for inviting him to her 8th birthday party. But Andrew likes writing letters. It seems the one place he can express his feelings. So over the years, he writes more and longer letters than Melissa does. They each talk of teenage angst, being sent off to boarding schools, parents divorcing, experimenting with drugs and alcohol and later their college years, and onto adulthood and marriages, children, careers.
Andrew is the one who following the expected path; Melissa is wilder and artsy. It is she who gets asked to leave various schools, who tests the limits more and who seems more on the precipice.
As the play moves only, you half hope these two will get together yet you recognize that while they are friends and confidants, they would not be good mates for each other.
So the correspondence continues, although more sporadic as Andrew enters politics and Melissa becomes a divorced mother with a tendency to overindulge in alcohol.
When A. R. Gurney wrote this piece, it was designed for the letters to be read by a rotating cast of actors with minimal rehearsal. It is a simple production: a table, two chairs and no backdrop. The costumes are appropriately “preppy” or “Ivy League.” It seems odd to have credits for scenic design (John Lee Beatty), costumes (Joan Greenwood), lighting (Peter Kaczorowki) and sound (Scott Lehrer). It looks like a rehearsal area and that the actors are just wearing their own clothes.
In this revival, five pairs of performers have been announced; if the show runs longer, certainly more will be added.
Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow are the first Andrew and Melissa. Following that will director Gregory Mosher will be working with Carol Burnett and Dennehy (Oct. 11 to Nov. 8), Alan Alda and Candice Bergen (Nov. 9 to Dec. 2), Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg (Dec. 6 to Jan. 9) and Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen (Jan. 10 to Feb. 15). It would interesting to see how the sense of the characters changes as Mosher and the different casts
work with the piece. While I would like to see all the pairs, if I could see one more it would the Alda, Bergen pairing.
So how were Dennhey and Farrow? At first, I had my doubts about Brian Dennehy — he more usually plays less polished and upper class characters than the reserved Andrew. And at times, his facial expressions were limited to neutral or — later on in the piece — a scowl. Yet, Dennehy effectively mined the emotions beneath Andrew’s expected reserve.
My reaction to Farrow’s performance also changed during the play. At first, I appreciated her subtle expressions and gestures as she heard Andrew’s letters read. It was obvious how she was responding to them and what she was thinking. It was a contrast to the more controlled Dennehy.
But as the play progressed, and Melissa has more and more problems, I felt that Farrow went too far; she made her too emotional. Instead of feeling Melissa’s desperation, it seemed like merely hysterics or a tantrum. The result was I felt less sympathy for Melissa.
I left the theater feeling sad that these two people never really seemed happy. Yet, I was fulfilled and thoughtful. Love Letters just does that to you.
So go see this 90-minute, intermissionless play about a very special relationship.
Tickets are available through Ticketmaster. Love Letters is at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on W. 47th St.