By: David Sheward
There has been a certain amount of carping about the revival of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, the charming 1988 Pulitzer finalist which requires only two actors, little rehearsal time, and minimal design elements (The only setting is John Lee Beatty’s elegant wooden table, lit warmly by Peter Kaczorowski). Gurney specifies that the performers should be reading from scripts so no memorization is involved and most productions including this one employ revolving casts so the stars have a relatively brief commitment of time. The complainers-and there aren’t many of them-are up in arms that such a minimalist show is still charging top Broadway prices. Yes, they do have a point, but given the economics of the American commercial theater, the only question about a show should be is it worth the price of admission and your time? I can only answer based on the first company-Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow-and the response is an unqualified yes.
The premise is simplicity itself. The nearly five-decade long relationship between two patricians, Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace III, is detailed through their letters, postcards and notes. From grade school to Ivy League universities to varying adult paths, Melissa and Andrew just miss their opportunity for fulfilling mutual love. Either through adolescent stubbornness, inconvenient circumstances, or rigid convention, a satisfying union is continually thwarted. Straight-arrow Andrew buys into the suburban dream and eventually becomes a respectable politician while the wealthier and more troubled Melissa leads a more uninhibited life as an artist. But she is beset by martial problems and alcoholism. It may sound like a high-toned romance novel, but Gurney offers incisive social observations and deep character development, making his pair of mismatched lovers much more than stereotypical cocktail socialites.
As with all memorable drama, the most revealing details are little ones, like the off-hand acknowledgement that Melissa’s stepfather sexually abused her ("He bothered me in bed if you must know" is her only mention of this shocking fact which speaks volumes about her need to cover up unpleasantness.) Or take Andrew’s anger over the arbitrariness of his school’s crew team rotation without regard to ability. When he complains about it, his coach replies, "That’s life, Andy." The small phrase encapsulates all the injustices and unfairness both characters encounter.
It’s no surprise that Dennehy, a double Tony winner for meaty performances in such heavyweight classics as Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, would bring dimension to Andrew’s struggle and final capitulation to conformism. Farrow is the real revelation here. Apart from benefits and readings, her last New York stage appearance was a limited Off-Broadway run of Fran’s Bed in 2005 and before that the slight Romantic Comedy on Broadway in 1980. Only in Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose did we see the full possibility of her talent. That is until now. She takes us through Melissa’s painful journey from spoiled rich girl to disillusioned woman desperately clinging to Andy, the one person who loves her. With the smallest gesture, vocal inflection, or merely by sitting silently, she can convey a lifetime of disappointment and longing.
It’s difficult to tell where director Gregory Mosher’s contribution begins and the cast’s ends, but it’s clear he helped modulate and balance these two sterling performances. Dennehy will play opposite Carol Burnett when Farrow leaves, then Alan Alda, Candice Bergen, Stacy Keach, Diana Rigg, Martin Sheen and Anjelica Huston will take over. Each will put their own unique stamp on Love Letters, but it’s hard to imagine they will better the opening company.
Sept. 18-Feb. 15, 2015. Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue.-Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. $52-$127. (877) 250-2929 or www.ticketmaster.com.
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Originally Published on September 26, 2014 in ArtsinNY.com