One might think that having two actors — regardless of how much aura they exude — sitting at a table reading letters back and forth would become pretty boring pretty fast. That it doesn’t, or not too much, has to do with the fact that, in Love Letters, playwright A.R. Gurney knows his characters and how to create engaging repartee, even in the medium of the missive.
Gurney’s plays are well known for their eye upon the Northeastern upper crust, much as Woody Allen is known for work inhabited by anxious New York intellectuals. Love Letters, directed by Gordon Edelstein and playing at the Long Wharf Theatre until April 10, stars Mia Farrow, star of more than a handful of Allen movies, and two-time Tony-winning actor Brian Dennehy, last seen at Long Wharf in Krapp’s Last Tape. In the theater world, the popularity of Love Letters stems from the fact that big-name actors often pair up for this two-hander where the leads read rather than speak, as if extempore.
Gurney is masterful at breaking the most famous dictum about writing: show, don’t tell. He knows that letters enthrall us not because they are dramatic or humorous or because they tell fascinating stories, but because someone is speaking directly to us (the reader). In Love Letters, the two leads are speaking, first of all, only to each other, and that sense of a private world created when one act of writing calls forth another is fascinating in and of itself. In the age of cellphones, IMs, and texts, it’s also romantic.
We meet Melissa Gardner (Farrow) and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Dennehy) when they are children, exchanging notes as kids in school do. They grow into flirting and sparring friends who might become a couple, depending. The Gardners are rich and one of Gurney’s favorite themes — the psychic costs of being wealthy — is demonstrated in the dramatic turns Melissa’s story takes, with an alcoholic mother, and a father out West with his new family, contributing to her slide. Meanwhile, Andrew is raised by his dutiful dad with a firm sense of the public obligation inherent in private privilege, and eventually becomes a Yalie and then a U.S. Senator with a more or less model family. As the letters between Melissa and Andrew make clear, regardless of what either undertakes, both are still part of an enduring couple formed by their lifelong attempts to be frank with each other in writing.
In their college years, the duo tries to hook up (as we’d say today) at the Hotel Duncan, which is described as “seedy” even then. The world of the couple, with its single-gender schools, its arranged dances, and its air of genteel earnestness, may seem as quaint as the dip pen Andrew unearths and employs again late in their correspondence, or it may seem like a timeless WASP world of how things should be done. In either case, Gurney’s play gives us a man who succeeds in that world — still very much a man’s world in its self-conceptions — and a woman who flounders and fails, at marriage, at motherhood, at art, and at affairs. Because Melissa’s failings are depicted indirectly and in her own, often wry or expletive-happy words, we can believe for a while that she’s simply experimenting with life and doing all she can to avoid the complacency and self-importance that often overtake Andrew. Eventually, the melodrama in the plot starts to overwhelm the resources of character and Melissa swerves perilously close to becoming a picturesque mad shambles.
Farrow plays up the key moods in which Melissa seems to write to Andrew: sardonic and superior, or childish and fond, or bathetic and, eventually, desperate — overdoing the last, perhaps, to shock us out of the easy rhythms of the piece. And yet there is something to Gurney’s portrayal of how a wealthy woman might find it hard to do anything well, particularly if she finds so little to take seriously in her own upbringing. Her letter to Andrew at the time of his father’s death shows how clearly she sees the difference between having values and having none.
As drama, the play’s portrayal of Melissa works because our glimpses of her are mostly all Andrew gets as well — but for that Hotel Duncan tryst and, years later, a series of much more successful erotic liaisons. We also thus see how much Andrew is found wanting. He writes to her because he feels compelled to, but mainly to have a witness to what he achieves. Rarely does he respond to her as she most likely hopes he will, and Dennehy’s performance gets the right tone. His Andrew is a man who will always be a bit boyish, and that’s at his best. He will never be profound, but he won’t be anyone’s fool. Melissa, who is much more willing to take risks, seeks at first lovers who will be more exciting, but finds in Andrew a steady friend and makes the mistake of expecting something more of him.
Love Letters premiered at the Long Wharf in 1988, and if it were updated it might be suitable to have the characters sending emails by the end of the show. Unanswered emails can create anxiety like unanswered letters, particularly as the expectation of immediate reply has increased exponentially. The crisp rhythm of the exchanges in the play, in Edelstein’s deft direction, does feel at times like email and, when lines overlap, like instant messages.
In other words, the medium in the play doesn’t feel dated, but the characters do, a bit: the arty, hysterical woman a malcontent, and the masterful, dedicated man a bit of a stiff. As types they have a lot of familiarity that Love Letters revisits, but if we read between the lines, the play is a lesson in the widely observed gender expectations of another time — even as today, a woman might be as likely as Andrew to strive for a senate seat.
Love Letters runs at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargeant Dr., through April 10. Tickets are $25 to $85.