Transferring A.R. Gurney’s rueful “Love Letters” to the small screen is no easy task. The play’s epistolary structure and two-character cast suggest a certain stiffness unsuited to TV’s airier aesthetic. Yet scribe Gurney has ingeniously altered this tender, sentimental drama to fit the new medium for director Stanley Donen’s cleverly rendered telepic.
Essentially an exchange between two preppies, “Love Letters” traces the lives of Andrew Ladd (Steven Weber) and Melissa Gardner (Laura Linney) through a series of notes and letters spanning nearly a lifetime. In the play, the actors portray the characters at various life stages; in the teleplay, Gurney has allowed for tykes and teens to assume the roles of young Andy and Melissa, with Weber and Linney occasionally voicing the dialogue.
Gurney has tweaked his play in other ways as well, almost always without doing damage to the carefully calibrated work. Andy and Melissa meet more frequently than they do on the stage, where an even greater number of missed opportunities conspire to keep these would-be lovers at bay. And as network censors don’t cotton to four-letter words, Gurney altered a few phrases to mollify them.The framing device that opens the program, however, will upset devotees of the stage version. In the play, Melissa’s unexpected death comes as a great blow, at the drama’s conclusion. Here, it opens the action, with Andy (now Senator Ladd) returning from her funeral and rereading their voluminous correspondence as an act of remembrance. It’s a bad idea, undercutting heartfelt emotion in favor of a maudlin gesture. It also entirely removes the element of surprise from the teleplay.
That said, Weber and, especially, Linney turn in touching, convincing, charming performances. If there’s not exactly chemistry between these two, the suggestion of bona fide affection and love more than makes up for the absence of heat. And that’s exactly Gurney’s point.
Accepting Weber (formerly of “Wings”) as a Wasp Senator is sometimes a little hard, but Linney has troubled artist Melissa down pat. And helmer Donen, for one, seems gaga over the actress, who starred in the “Tales of the City” minis and is clearly born to the tube. The director shoots Linney like she’s Audrey Hepburn, and, indeed, she glows.
Donen has also managed a fine job opening up the action, expanding Gurney’s play with a multitude of outdoor shots, unusual angles and sharp edits.