Regret and “What Might Have Beens” Infuse “Love Letters”

_52A7656© T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.net

Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy.  Photo by T Charles Erickson.

By Karen Isaacs

Love Letters is now at Long Wharf Theater through April 10. Tickets are available at longwharf.org or 203-7874282.  This is my review when I saw Dennehy and Farrow perform these roles on Broadway in Oct. 2014.

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 prepare 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.”

Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow play Andrew and Melissa.

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.

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