I Sent a Letter to My Love

Opened Feb. 8, 1995; reviewed Feb. 7. Running time: 2 hours, 15 min. Jimmy ... John Hickok Amy ... Lynne Wintersteller Stan ... Robert Westenberg Gwen ... Bethe B. Austin Miss Morgan ... Meagen Fay Musical numbers: Prologue, "Across the Lake,""God Never Closes a Door,""What I Am,""Lady Seeks Gentleman,""Grass Between My Toes,""Your Prince,""Very Truly Yours,""Rosy Red,""Pants, Angela, ""Perfect Timing,""Chance of You,""I Never Knew,""Someone in a Chair,""The Day I Meet My Friend,""Last Night,""Change in the Air."

Opened Feb. 8, 1995; reviewed Feb. 7. Running time: 2 hours, 15 min. Jimmy … John Hickok Amy … Lynne Wintersteller Stan … Robert Westenberg Gwen … Bethe B. Austin Miss Morgan … Meagen Fay Musical numbers: Prologue, “Across the Lake,””God Never Closes a Door,””What I Am,””Lady Seeks Gentleman,””Grass Between My Toes,””Your Prince,””Very Truly Yours,””Rosy Red,””Pants, Angela, “”Perfect Timing,””Chance of You,””I Never Knew,””Someone in a Chair,””The Day I Meet My Friend,””Last Night,””Change in the Air.”

Melissa Manchester’s debut as a composer/lyricist for the theater, “I Sent a Letter to My Love,” is probably the first musical about epistolary incest. It’s no “She Loves Me,” another musical in which letter writing is a key plot device, but it’s no embarrassment, either. Plain and even as its Ohio setting, “Letter” is almost willfully pallid, despite the eroticized material. Think of a musical written by William Inge and you get the drift.

Manchester’s collaborator is Jeffrey Sweet, an accomplished playwright (“The Value of Names,””What About Luv?”) and TV writer (“Pack of Lies,” among many others), who wrote the book and shares credit for the lyrics. The show is based on Bernice Rubens’ novel of the same name, which was the source of

the 1981 film that provided Simone Signoret with her last role.

Manchester and Sweet have

moved the story to Smalltown USA in the mid-’50s. Amy (Lynne Wintersteller) has spent her adult life caring for her brother Stan (Robert Westenberg), who has used a wheelchair since polio struck at the age of 5.

Shortly after they take in Gwen (Bethe B. Austin), a boarder, the desperately lonely Amy places an ad in the classifieds of the local newspaper, seeking a gentleman with whom she can correspond. After several weeks, the ad produces its sole response — a letter, Amy quickly discerns, penned by the unknowing Stan.

Taking a post office box in a nearby hamlet and assuming the racy name Angela de la Fortune, Amy allows the correspondence to blossom, even as their letters grow increasingly sexual in content.

When Stan and Gwen fall in love — in a scene right out of “Heidi,” Gwen gives Stan the will to walk that Amy presumably smothered long ago — the sister is shattered, left only with her memories of the suave band singer (John Hickok) who bedded her at 17 and has occupied her daydreams ever since.

All of this unfolds rather perfunctorily. Most of the exposition is clunky — whether hifalutin clunky, as in Stan’s twice-noted “God gave me the soul of a dancer!” or phony down-homey clunky, as in his observation, meant to rouse Gwen, that it’s “so quiet in these parts you can hear the robins break wind.”

And the songs are, for the most part, equally bland, though Manchester clearly knows what to do with a melody. Amazingly, for a show whose themes — loneliness, horniness and otherness — are the very stuff of musical theater, few of the songs seem absolutely necessary or to come from some deep need. The exceptions stand out: In “Grass Between My Toes,” a lilting, Harry Chapin-like number, Stan recalls the joys of perambulation, and “Very Truly Yours” is a classic letter song. There are two squirm-in-your-seaters: “Rosy Red,” which requires poor Stan to sing, “I dream of BUH-ZUMS” and worse; and “Last Night,” in which Amy articulates just exactly what she would like to do with … well, with her brother, for goodness’ sake.

Under Pat Birch’s fluid, even snappy, direction, a fine cast plays all this with great conviction — even if Westenberg is a bit too stalwart and stentorian a Stan, and Hickok’s not totally convincing as the “thoroughly bad character” he advertises himself to be.

The women are completely winning, Wintersteller perfectly embodying that sad spinster mix of devotedness and frustration; Austin the picture of a prim and protected soul who has found her life’s mission in an unexpected place. And, as a meek singing schoolteacher hired by Amy to impersonate Angela de la Fortune, Meagen Fay almost steals the show, her eyeballs spinning like blue tops as Stan suddenly kisses her — comic touches in what is, in fact, a cruel scene.

James Noone has provided a dreamy setting — colored lights twinkle behind a pastoral scrim surrounding a few set pieces that simply suggest the plain locale , and the dreaminess is reinforced by Kirk Bookman’s lighting. Also just right are Rodney Munoz’s Ike-era clothes.

Indeed, professionalism is in evidence throughout this “Letter.” But it’s of the cookie-cutter sort, botching nearly every attempt to get inside these people — or us, for that matter.

I Sent a Letter to My Love

(Primary Stages, N.Y.; 99 seats; $ 37.50 top)

Production: A Primary Stages presentation of a musical in two acts, with music by Melissa Manchester, lyrics by Jeffrey Sweet and by Manchester and Sweet, based on the novel by Bernice Rubens. Directed by Pat Birch; musical direction by Aaron Hagan; musical arrangements by Manchester and Hagan.

Creative: Set, James Noone; lighting, Kirk Bookman; costumes, Rodney Munoz; sound, Jim Van Bergen; production stage manager, Colleen Marie Davis; production manager, Andrew Leynse; general manager, Gina Gionfrido; artistic director, Casey Childs.

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