This review was originally published to Broadway World on February 5, 2016
Storytelling is theatre in its' purest form, but a story can often become secondary or lost when faced with spectacle. In a culture where overproduced mega musicals dominate the box office, it is refreshing to see A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters," a delightful bare bones, two person play with a single focus on human relationships.
A.R. Gurney cleverly uses the word "love" in the title in order to trick the audience into projecting their definition of love onto the plays only characters, Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, before the show even begins. I walked in with the ill-conceived notion that the story would be a "remember when" play about a life spent as husband and wife. Immediately, Gurney proved me (and anyone else who thought this) wrong by showing us how love can be as unique as a snowflake. He beautifully crafted his play to show us how love can form in an unlikely setting between two people who used pen and paper to weave together a fabric of love. Before us on stage, we hear the individual letters that act as the thread being woven together which symbolize that fabric.
"Love Letters" takes us through the tumultuous 50+ year penmanship relationship between Andrew and Melissa. The letters, which began in the second grade, chart out the peaks and valleys of their relationship. The depth of the play is revealed by how and when one is writing to the other. When their lives seem to align, they confide in each other about their most inner thoughts and when life pulls them in opposite directions, letters arrive around the holidays only. In a taut 90 minutes, the play's journey is vast and often intentionally disjointed, but there is fun in trying to piece together the story happening in between the arrival of the next letter.
Directed by Gregory Mosher, "Love Letters" stars Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal. The empty stage inside the Shubert Theatre features only a wooden table with two chairs and two scripts resting on top of the table. That is it. There are no lighting cues, no sound cues, no transitions and no costume changes. In lieu of all stagecraft, the suspension of disbelief is genuine. Ali MacGraw is illuminating as Melissa. MacGraw found the humor in her character's spunky early years and cracked open the confusion and, presumably, mental illness of Melissa in her later years. Ryan O'Neal is a fine Andrew despite a far less developed performance, but quite often he stumbled over his words on the lengthy monologues. "Love Letters" polished staged reading frame allows the audience to project their own visions onto Andrew and Melissa. This quality lets O'Neal's underdeveloped character to be completely forgiven. In fact, I preferred when the two actors stopped acting and read the text truthfully.
A recurring theme in "Love Letters" is the act of projecting one's expectations onto the other. After Andrew and Melissa meet for one of the few times in person, the two write about how the experience was not what they had anticipated. Andrew mentions how he kept looking over Melissa's shoulder for his version of her to appear. Having devoted so much time building their relationship strictly through correspondence, they were subconsciously building ideal versions of each other in their heads. Creating an imagined version of someone resonates today as we live in an internet based culture. Online dating allows us to have a 21st century experience similar to the one Gurney writes about.
As much as "Love Letters" addresses expectations, it also opens itself up for reflection. "Love Letters" not only lets us to climb aboard to follow the decade spanning relationship, but it simultaneously lets us step back and look at the arch of these two characters. We learn that Andrew was responsible for getting the correspondence initially started and kept asking for Melissa to write him back and in the later years we see that the roles have reversed. We see the highs of success, the lows of failed dreams and the reliance on each other in the fragile moments when one needs the other more.
Admittedly, I was skeptical going into "Love Letters." I have enjoyed some of Gurney's other plays, but I have struggled to identify with his work since its ethos is unfamiliar to me. Much to my surprise, I left profoundly moved by the plays' simplicity and healthy heartbeat. "Love Letters" is his most accessible work. It speaks to any demographic because it encapsulates the pure form of storytelling void of anything else to get in its way and is rooted in a universal theme of human relationships. Who cannot get behind that?