If there’s a gimmick to “Love Letters,” the Broadway revival of A.R. Gurney’s two-character play about a man and woman writing to one another over half a century, it isn’t the presence of a rotating roster of rarely-seen stars – Mia Farrow with Brian Dennehy through October 10th – nor the absence of scenery or costumes, nor that the actors stay seated at a table the whole time and read from scripts without ever looking at each other. It is that the two characters write letters to one another. Who does that anymore?
That is part of why this play holds such an unexpected fascination, helped along by a reliable performance by the formidable Dennehy and an extraordinary one by Mia Farrow. Part of the pleasure, much akin to Michael Apted’s documentary “Up” series, is in watching while a relationship and two lifetimes unfold before us, in ways that are suggested subtly from the start, and in ways that are totally surprising.
The history of this play has its own satisfactions, as I discovered when I interviewed the playwright. Gurney began it as a typing exercise when he was learning a new computer. Thinking it a short story, he sent it off to the New Yorker magazine. “They sent back a rejection, saying ‘we don’t publish plays.’ My agent said ‘Maybe it is a play.’”
Some early critic didn’t think so, but since 1988, “Love Letters” has been translated into 24 languages and produced in more than 40 countries. It is only one of three plays by the prolific playwright that have been on Broadway, and the only one to return.
The letter-writing begins in 1937, when Andrew Makepeace Ladd III formally accepts the invitation to Melissa Gardner’s second grade birthday party. Their personalities are established from the get-go, and become even clearer over time. He’s dutiful – stuffy — and taken with her from the start. She’s rebellious, ultimately self-destructive, and artistically talented. She accepts his attention, sometimes grudgingly, often as her due. Gurney exhibits an acute ear for how children and teenagers talk.
“Sometimes I think you just like me because I’m richer than you are,” Melissa writes to Andy.
“All I know is my mother keeps saying you’d make a good match; if I ever married you, I’d be set up for life,” Andy replies in the blunt way of a young teen. “But I think it’s really just physical attraction.”
Their milieu is Northeast upper class White Anglo Saxon Protestant – ballroom dancing and boarding schools; Ivy League universities, the Navy, and politics for him; gallery openings and discreet high-price sanitariums for her – but Gurney manages to capture this world so precisely that its inhabitants never feel foreign.
Mia Farrow in particular feels ideally cast; it’s hard to imagine somebody who would do a better job as Melissa Gardner (although I am willing to reappraise if and when I see the other performers.) Farrow, with her translucent beauty and educated diction, appears believably rooted in the upper crust enclave in which Melissa is raised, but which never serves her well. Farrow ranges from flighty to flirty to fragile, with a suggestion of great feeling – much of it all the more communicated, paradoxically, because it is not expressed on the surface.
For much of their lives, Andy and Melissa never seem to be in the right place in the right time for their friendship to turn into the romance that it seemed destined to become. “Love Letters” winds up being as much about loss as about love, and of discovering how small the space between them.
Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47th Street
By A. R. Gurney; directed by Gregory Mosher; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Scott Lehrer;
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
Tickets: $60 to $136
Cast Brian Dennehy (Andrew Makepeace Ladd III) and Mia Farrow (Melissa Gardner).
Love Letters is scheduled to run through February 1, on the follow schedule of casts:
Saturday, September 13, 2014, through Friday, October 10, 2014
Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow
Saturday, October 11, 2014, through Friday, November 7, 2014
Carol Burnett and Brian Dennehy
Saturday, November 8, 2014 through Friday, December 5, 2014
Alan Alda and Candice Bergen
Saturday, December 6, 2014, through Friday, January 9, 2015
Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg
Saturday, January 10, 2015, through Sunday, February 1, 2015
Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen