Forty-five years since “Love Story” turned moviegoers into weepy messes and “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” became an international catchphrase, stars Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw have reunited as epistolary soulmates in A.R. Gurney’s two-hander “Love Letters.” The play seems tailor-made for the pair, who imbue their performances not only with palpable spark and gripping emotional depth but also with an aura of winsome nostalgia for a time when they were the industry’s most romantically tragic — and, therefore, most perfect — onscreen couple.
In a way this latest edition of “Love Letters,” bowing at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts as the start of a national tour, functions as a companion piece to Arthur Hiller’s 1970 tearjerker. The play gives O’Neal and MacGraw a second chance at love, though this time around as Andrew “Andy” Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, two childhood friends from families of means (thought Melissa’s is wealthier, as she frequently point out), who begin a letter-writing experiment that starts with birthday-party thank-you cards and spans some 50 years as they come together and grow apart, eventually having an affair at a point where it’s already far too late for them.
Beyond its melancholy storyline and Gurney’s deftly-wrought dialogue about everything from the joys of writing to depression and divorce, what makes the play a favorite among big-name actors — with pairings that have included Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones and, in the recent Broadway revival, Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy — is that the lines are not meant to be memorized. The staging is sparse, and the actors read off the page.
Seated beside one another at a desk center-stage, MacGraw, her once-brown hair now a glorious shock of distinguished grey, and O’Neal, jowly where he was once more hockey jock, slip easily and completely into their roles, conveying a closeness and affection for one another — and sometimes irritability and disdain — without ever having to exchange a single glance.
In this production directed by Gregory Mosher, MacGraw delivers what is, perhaps, the strongest performance of her career, eliciting laughs from the audience and tears where appropriate. As Melissa, she’s tack-sharp and forthright, witty and non-conformist. She is an alcoholic and an artist for whom domestic life never quite satisfies, and MacGraw is so convincing in the role that you find yourself sighing at how undone she’s become. Melissa hates letter-writing, which she illustrates most effectively in the interludes between letters where MacGraw, angry with Andy’s latest correspondence (about a girl he’s courting, or a prep school dance gone awry), stares silently and determinedly into the air, refusing to put pen to paper.
In contrast, Andy is the more practical of the two — he becomes a U.S. senator, and stays married for appearances — and yet he relishes writing letters, relying on them as his primary mode of self-expression where the rest of his existence is more plotted and confined. With his wounded vulnerability and lingering prep school hair, O’Neal is a natural fit for Andy. He evokes his adolescent narcissism with as much sensitivity and conviction as he does his more tempered adulthood. Though he occasionally stumbles over his lines — of the two, MacGraw’s performance is the more polished — these blemishes work in the play’s favor, adding an additional element of realism to the characters, plagued at different times in their lives by confusion and self-doubt, with love being the dominant thread that continually draws them together.
At the play’s end, MacGraw and O’Neal sob openly onstage, a response heightened by the shared history between them. They kiss, wrap their arms around one another and slowly make their way offstage in a way that suggests, like their characters in “Love Story” and “Love Letters,” that there has always been love between them, and there will always be.