Bryan Cranston and Sally Field performed live on May 21, 2020 in A.R. Gurney’s two-character play about a man and woman writing to one another over half a century, starting at the age of seven. This was the third in a series of new live-streamed productions of old plays produced by Broadway’s Best Shows.
The 1988 play seems ideal for online theater. Even when it was on Broadway — as it was twice, the last time in 2014 (my review)– there was no scenery or costumes, and the actors stayed seated at a table the whole time and read from scripts without ever looking at each other. It still managed to be terrifically entertaining and surprisingly moving.
The history of this play has its own satisfactions, as I discovered when I interviewed the playwright in 2014, three years before he died at the age of 86. 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 its debut, “Love Letters” has been translated into 24 languages and produced in more than 40 countries, performed by a constellation of stars, in rotating pairs: e.g. Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow, Carol Burnett and Dennehy, Alan Alda and Candice Bergen (and that was just at the 2014 Broadway revival.)
It is a great vehicle for two veteran performers, and Sally Field and Bryan Cranston, each sheltering at home, made the most of it.
Watching their performances, I was struck by how rooted the characters are in the specifics of an upper-class WASP culture that once took center stage in American life. Indeed, it’s easy to argue that Gurney was using both characters to say something about the evolution/devolution in power and privilege of their class — Andrew Makepeace Ladd III becomes a U.S. Senator, but Melissa Gardner loses her sense of purpose and belonging. Yet, even though the action unfolds starting in 1937, the way the two people speak and behave at different stages of their lives feels so well-observed that “Love Letters” feels fresh and, despite an ever-so-slight dip into sentimentality, remains delightful. class