Love Letters by A.R. Gurney premiered on Broadway in 1989 and the current revival, directed by Gregory Mosher, allows an entirely new generation to be exposed to this intimate work. This play about the ever-changing relationship between two friends over the course of fifty years has a sense of nostalgia without feeling dated.
The stage is bare, aside from a table, two chairs, and a lighting fixture or two. The actors read their letters aloud side-by-side, yet they never interact. It is as if an invisible brick wall separates the two, just as states or countries often did. Though it is performed in one act, the play can be divided into four distinct phases in the characters lives: grade school, prep school, college, and adulthood. Since Ms. Farrow and Mr. Dennehy are actors of a certain age, it is difficult to sense a difference between their grade school selves and their prep school selves. Ms. Farrow's Melissa does have a youthful flippancy about her that comes across in her letters as she verbally signs her name with a "Valley Girl" flair. One hopes that during the run, she will find different colors and inflections to differentiate her very young self from her less young self. Ditto for Mr. Dennehy's Andy.
When the characters reach their college years, that is when the magic starts to happen. The characters come alive as if reincarnated from their letter-bound state. Andy becomes more focused on his future; meanwhile, Melissa flirts with an artistic lifestyle and remains ever the free spirit. We can feel the magnetism between them, but distance and other obstacles keep getting in the way. As an audience, we want them to stop writing so many damn letters and become a real couple already, but time has other plans.
Eventually Andy meets a lover in Japan and out of jealousy, Melissa quickly marries. When each couple eventually separates, we hope that Melissa and Andy will finally realize how they feel about one another, but it is not to be. Andy marries a much classier woman and Melissa immerses herself first in her art, and then in her drinking. Late in life, Andy and Melissa finally have an affair, but being a Senator, he can never leave his wife. This ultimate realization that she will never have Andy sends Melissa into a tailspin and he struggles to pick up the pieces.
As an audience member, this is a difficult piece to wrestle with. Should we feel happy for Andy and Melissa and celebrate their 50 years of friendship? After all, it is rare for any relationship to last that long. Or, do we mourn the marriage that was never to be? Their love seemed so palpable in the letters. It was so real on paper that in the flesh it could never measure up. Since seeing the play last week, I've had the nagging feeling that this seemingly antiquated letter relationship is not so different from the "relationships" we have over email and text. You will have to judge for yourself.
See Mia Farrow & Brian Dennehy in Love Letters at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre through October 10th. Carol Burnett replaces Ms. Farrow through November 8th. Alan Alda & Candice Bergen take over until December 5th. Stacy Keach & Diana Rigg helm the production through January 9th and finally, Martin Sheen & Anjelica Huston finish the run on February 15th.