Brian Dennehy & Mia Farrow. Dennehy & Carol Burnett. Alan Alda & Candice Bergen. Stacy Keach & Diana Rigg. Anjelica Huston & Martin Sheen. That’s the revolving star lineup for the Broadway revival of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.” Although still a popular regional attraction, this 1989 two-hander has been largely forgotten by Gotham. Or maybe not so much forgotten as deemed irrelevant for a culture that doesn’t get the point of love letters, or any kind of letters, or maybe even love itself. Older theatergoers who remember those quaint artifacts should turn out for stars of their own generation who also remember.
After all these years, Gurney’s bittersweet love letter to an oddly matched couple who maintain an epistolary friendship for half a century can still tug at the old heartstrings. Especially when handled with great delicacy by pros like Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy.
The staging is minimal and the structure is simplicity itself: two actors, a man and a woman of a certain age, sit side by side at a sturdy wooden table but never interact as they read from old letters, postcards, notes, and seasonal greeting cards (i.e., their scripts). Under Gregory Mosher’s sensitive direction, the spell is never broken.
The first letter, written in 1937, comes from Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, who “accepts with pleasure the kind invitation of Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Channing Gardner for a birthday party in honor of their daughter Melissa.” What Andy doesn’t mention in his letter, but which soon becomes apparent, is that Master Andy fell in love with Miss Melissa the moment she walked into his second grade class. (“You looked like a lost princess,” he tells her early in their correspondence.)
Andy is a good little boy, a very serious child who already feels the weight of his filial obligations to his stern father, and that is exactly how Dennehy plays him from the beginning, as a little man in the body of a 6-year-old boy. Melissa is another story. This fiercely independent girl, the child of uneasily divorced parents, is a born rebel, a real little devil, and Farrow grabs that naughtiness by the tail and never lets it go.
Practically the first thing she tells Andy is not to write her any more letters. But Andy has found his princess and before they make it into third grade, he’s already asking her to marry him. On some level, he already senses that her wildness corrects his little-old-man stuffiness.
These are rich kids (in Melissa’s case, very rich indeed), so their growing friendship takes place within the context of their privileged Wasp social class: nursemaids, boarding school, dancing school, child psychiatrists, summer camp in the Adirondacks. Then it’s on to Yale and Harvard Law for straight-arrow Andy and to various schools for Melissa, who has distinct artistic leanings but keeps getting kicked out of school.
Farrow is wonderful at taking Melissa through the downward trajectory of her life and very protective about her keen intelligence and clear insights. “You’re always doing just the right thing all the time,” she writes Andy. “You’re a victim of your parents sometimes.” And just to make sure he gets the message, she sends him a sketch of a dancing bear on a chain.
By the time they’re finished with their schooling and are working on their first marriages, Andy and Melissa have grown miles apart. But neither one can quite let go of the other, and no matter how frayed the bond, their friendship lives on — remarkably, for fifty years — through their letters.
In his carefully modulated authorial voice, Gurney makes it quite clear that his mismatched pair are the yin and yang of a perfectly balanced relationship. That they complete one another. That they can’t live without each other. And how sad it is that whenever one of them gets the message, the other one never seems to be around to hear it.