Review: "Love Letters" at the Long Wharf Theatre
OnStage Connecticut Critic
NEW HAVEN, CT - Full disclosure: I purposely stayed away from this show for years, and I’ll admit that it was with an uninformed bias. The title alone brought up visions of romantic insipidness that my matter-of-fact sensibilities couldn’t take. Hell, even the New York Times refused to review it when it opened on Broadway, so I’m not the only one. But despite past reservations to see this show, I went to Long Wharf’s production and was pleasantly surprised with an engrossing story and excellent performances.
The play had its formal premiere at the Long Wharf in 1988, after an informal read by the playwright and his friend, Holland Taylor at the New York Public Library, replacing a lecture, according to Gurney, on “Wasps at Dinner.” Not sure if he meant the insect or the acronym. Throughout the years, it has played throughout the world with different pairings of actors; most recently, Ryan O’Neil and Ali McGraw took a turn with the script to attract fans of the 1970s tear-jerker film, Love Story.
For those unfamiliar with the A. R. Gurney’s Pulitzer Prize nominee, Love Letters follows the correspondence of two confidantes over 50 years, beginning with a note to Melissa Gardner (Mia Farrow) from Andrew Makepiece Ladd III (Brian Dennehy) accepting an invitation to her 10th birthday party. The year was 1937: a time when letter-writing was still an art form and a vital method of communication. Despite Melissa’s reluctance to write letters, she and Andy keep writing each other, mostly due to Andy’s love of letter writing. He seems to thrive on communicating through writing, almost having to pull the words from her. She’d much rather speak over the phone or in person. This distinct difference in their preferred forms of interaction foreshadows the lives that they will ultimately lead.
A lot of the strength of this piece comes from the authority of its actors. We come into the space familiar with the potent, energetic characters that these actors have brought onto our movie screens and into our living rooms. Farrow’s occasionally neurotic and eccentric portrayals and Dennehy’s commanding presence and intense characterizations are simply entertainment lore that we have always admired.
This play gives these icons an opportunity to share an intimate hour-and-a-half as two people telling a story about a life together without the trappings of blocking, sets, and costumes. Vigorous physicality isn’t necessary to convey these characters; it’s the power of their delivery: they are in fact reading letters from a script on a stand, seated at a table.
In an age when showcasing becomes the show, it makes for a nice change to see something laid-back and down-to-earth in its presentation. Love Letters is theatre stripped down to its essential elements: people telling their story, rivetedly told by veteran actors.