Friday, October 3, 2014

Broadway Review—A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters"

Love Letters
Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Gregory Mosher
Performances through February 15, 2015
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Farrow and Dennehy in Love Letters (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Our most astute chronicler of the upper-crust, A.R. Gurney provides another one-percent primer with Love Letters, returning to Broadway for the first time since 1989 (it premiered the year before in New Haven). Comprising letters written by Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner over the course of their lives together and—mostly—apart, the play's epistolary structure makes it easy to perform (it's easily Gurney's most popular play): the performers sit at adjoining desks and read directly from their scripts.

The device is so ingeniously simple it's surprising it isn't been done more often. Andrew and Melissa discuss what's happening in their increasingly distant lives, while admitting to (or, occasionally, hiding) their feelings for each other as their decades apart pass by. Andrew is a WASP through and through who is a U.S. Senator by play's end—and, maybe one day, president—who writes letters that are mostly formal and even bland, while Melissa, far more emotionally volatile, wears her heart on her sleeve in each letter (about which she complains regularly, much preferring the telephone), signaling her intensely creative personality.

There are flaws, starting with that missing telephone: even with all their letter-writing, are we to believe these people never once pick up a phone to talk about important, or even everyday, matters? (We are also obviously in the pre-cell phone, pre-social media era.) Another problem is pitting highstrung Melissa against even-keel Andrew. She barrels through relationships, breakups, drinking bouts, stints in rehab, etc., while Andrew is the lone person to whom she writes about such momentous events. Even when they finally have their long-overdue affair—he's a Senator with a wife and children, she a divorced mother and frustrated artist—it seems that it's only so she can fly off the handle when he ends it because he's worried about his political career.

Gurney's acute ear for dialogue allows his actors to perform sundry miracles, particularly Mia Farrow, who looks two decades younger than her real age (69) as she makes manifest Melissa's broad emotions without wallowing in caricature. She even begins with a young girl's voice for the early letters, gradually—and imperceptibly—turning into a woman's.

Brian Dennehy has a forceful stage presence, so sitting and reading isn't his strong suit. But he's a hard-working, intelligent actor who nails Andrew's hesitant attitude. Understatedly directed by Gregory Mosher, Love Letters is an acting exercise in the best sense. (Dennehy and Farrow are in the play until Oct. 10, followed by Dennehy and Carol Burnett Oct. 11-Nov. 8 and Alan Alda and Candice Bergen Nov. 9-Dec. 5.)

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