Theatergoers who know only A.R. Gurney’s 1988 two-hander Love Letters may think of it as an elaborate gift to actors. Told entirely through a lengthy series of letters read by the performers, which sit in a binder onstage, the work has attracted dozens of the world’s foremost thespians – many of whom performed it for only one or two nights, without benefit of rehearsal.
For its current Broadway mounting at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, five pairs of extraordinary actors have signed up to headline the piece for a few weeks at a time, starting with two-time Tony Award winner Brian Dennehy and film and stage star Mia Farrow, who prove to be a mostly dynamic duo. (Carol Burnett, Alan Alda, Candice Bergen, Diana Rigg and Anjelica Huston are among the mega-luminaries who will come in for later stints.)
Moreover, once you see this singular piece, here directed effectively by Gregory Mosher, it’s abundantly clear that Gurney’s 90-minute play is far more than just a reading exercise. It’s a love letter in itself to a bygone era of formal invitations, courtly manners and long epistles where one needed to read between the lines to get the full effect of the writer’s intent.
The play is also, at its heart, a shattering, ill-fated love story between two childhood friends: Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, a well-off, well-bred WASP who grows up to be a successful US senator and a semi-happily married man, and Melissa Gardner, an even wealthier WASP with a rebellious spirit and bipolar personality, who careens through multiple disastrous marriages, motherhood, artistic success and failure, and failed stints at rehab.
Some of the show’s biggest laughs come from Melissa’s belittlement of Andy’s over-fondness for writing letters, especially his love of sharing mundane details about his life during his high school years when he natters on about his crew team status. Of course, Melissa will ultimately fall apart during those periods when Andy decides to stop writing her. Over their 50-year “courtship,” Melissa has only one constant in her life: Andy and his letters. And the same holds true for Andy.
Nevertheless, it’s the one major drawback of Gurney’s play that he does force the audience to pay attention to an awful lot of banal correspondence (including endless recitations of Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas and the like.) Even with his stentorian delivery, Dennehy can’t make all of Gurney’s small talk riveting enough to command our constant attention. Moreover, while Dennehy nicely limns Andy’s inner conflict in expressing his true feelings toward Melissa, he’s not altogether convincing as a self-described “stuffy bastard.” As he’s proven in his greatest stage performances, bluster and anger are among Dennehy’s strongest suits as an actor.
Farrow, however, is nothing short of a revelation. While she’s worked infrequently on the stage over the past four decades, she brilliantly captures Melissa’s many moods over the years, from self-righteousness to self-doubt, indifference to infatuation. And without a costume change (her simple duds are by Jane Greenwood) or new hairdo, Melissa appears to age before our eyes, her face showing us the toll her troubled family life and failure to connect permanently to anyone or anything (including Andy) has taken on her.
By the time you get home from the theater, you may be tempted to take your own pen in hand and write a meaningful letter to someone in your life, past or present, and express your deepest feelings. Who says (other than Erich Segal) that love means never having to say you’re sorry.