Remember all those times the scenery itself yielded applause on Broadway? It’s a semi-regular occurrence now for audiences to clap for an opulently designed set, sometimes before the actors have even emerged from the wings. It’s even more of an accomplishment then that A.R. Gurney’s 1988 two-person play Love Letters returns to Broadway this month in a modest-scaled and at times exhilarating production that if nothing else proves that simplicity can prevail even in a big theatre.
The production is set on a completely bare stage with two actors sitting in wooden chairs at a large wooden table, their lines set up for them in on stage binders. It’s therefore up to Gurney’s words to conjure the images of the play, which centers on the decades-long long-distance love affair between straitlaced Andrew Makepiece Ladd III (Brian Dennehy) and free-spirited Melissa Gardner (Mia Farrow), whose lives diverge and reconnect throughout their lives.
The text, written in epistolary form, is made up of Andrew and Melissa’s various letters, notes, and cards to one another over the years. Beginning with their scrawled grade school notes and continuing through their letters to one another from separate boarding schools, separate colleges, and into adulthood, the play traces its characters’ journeys with remarkable economy. In the world of the play, years pass with the arrival of each new Christmas card. Through devices like this one, Gurney is able to sum up the shifts in his protagonists’ relationship through just a handful of words, and director Gregory Mosher has made sure, despite the play’s visually static premise, that the actors’ timing is crisp and precise.
Andrew and Melissa’s courtship changes form over the years. What is essentially a schoolyard fascination in their early years grows into a bond that Andrew views more as love while Melissa, who comes from a broken and sometimes abusive home, begins to think of him more as an older brother. Their attempts at forging a more solid romantic bond in college (Andrew goes to Yale, Melissa to Briarcliff) find mixed results after a thwarted hookup in a New Haven hotel goes awry.
Once Andrew and Melissa reach adulthood, the play gains momentum. Tensions build as childhood notes become longer letters, much to Melissa’s chagrin. Melissa would prefer to meet more often in person, but their lives’ orbits never seem to align just so, and while Andrew’s life takes a regimented path (he joins the Navy, graduates from Harvard Law, and becomes a senator), Melissa’s is ultimately stunted. Both marry other people, but Melissa’s marriage ends quickly, followed by a career in art that never quite takes off. Andrew stays with his wife for the long haul, but his correspondence (and occasional in-person meetings) with Melissa complicates matters, especially once he takes office.
Dennehy as Andrew has the daunting task of giving dimension to a character that, though interesting, doesn’t change very much. He ultimately succeeds in his task, mostly through charm and a deep-rooted sense of earnestness and responsibility. By contrast, Farrow embodies young Melissa with a sense of childlike wonder, both in her manner of speaking and her bright-eyed exuberance. As Melissa grows older, it’s the arc that Farrow charts for her as her tone grows increasingly harried and manic that lends the play a real sense of gravitas as she confronts the disappointments of her life.
Despite an ending that rings somewhat false, as Gurney’s characters veer dangerously close to maudlin territory by means of a theatrical device that breaks the play’s own conventions, Love Letters succeeds primarily because it serves as a satisfyingly messy ode to the complicated realities of love, even love across a distance.
After Dennehy and Farrow depart, their rotating replacements include Carol Burnett, Alan Alda, Candice Bergen, Stacy Keach, Diana Rigg, Anjelica Huston, and Martin Sheen. Though I’m looking forward to catching some of their successors, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking on these roles as deftly as the current cast. As with any set of letters, though, the words are all there on the page – but there’s room enough for plenty of interpretation. In this production, that’s the space in which the true magic happens. For this cast, happen it does, so one can only hold out hope for those still to come.