A. R. Gurney’s 1988 play, Love Letters, is a joyous celebration of the written word that might look deceptively simple but is instead a complex and thrilling examination of life and love. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama, the ninety-minute show features a pair of actors sitting at a long rectangular table, with no bells or whistles; Tony-winning designer John Lee Beatty’s set is about as basic as can be. The epistolary play is told through decades of letters written between childhood friends Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III as they grow up together, head off to boarding school and college, experience romances, and choose very different life and career paths. While the privileged Melissa is a quirky free spirit interested in art, Andrew comes from a slightly less-moneyed family, maturing into a down-to-earth man seeking worldly achievement. Through the letters, they share their hopes and dreams, successes and disappointments, encapsulating two lives that don’t turn out quite as planned.
For more than a quarter century, Love Letters, in which the actors read directly from the script, has been performed around the world, with spectacular pairings as well as productions with stunt casting, including Gurney and Holland Taylor, Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Daniels, Kathleen Turner and John Rubinstein, Larry Hagman and Linda Gray (Dallas), Hagman and Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie), Robert Wagner and Jill St. John, Wagner and Stefanie Powers (Hart to Hart), Jerry Hall and David Soul, Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones, Samantha Bee and Jason Jones (The Daily Show), and, in Stanley Donen’s fleshed-out 1999 TV movie, Laura Linney and Steven Weber. For its current Broadway revival, directed by two-time Tony winner Gregory Mosher, five duos will be playing the roles through February 15. Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy open the run, and they are mesmerizing. Farrow brings a beguiling eccentricity to the capricious, unpredictable, and often self-defeating Melissa, who travels the world but can’t find happiness. Farrow delivers her lines looking out at the audience, adding emotive physical flourishes, while Dennehy steadfastly reads from the script with appropriate earnestness. Farrow and Dennehy make a wonderful team, particularly when one writes multiple letters to the other without a response, their disappointment and pain palpable. The play stumbles as it approaches the end, with the events that befall each character way too over the top, but Andrew’s soliloquy on the glory of handwritten letters trumps all minor quibbles. And thankfully the play has not been updated; there are no mentions of cell phones or the internet, which have changed forever the way people communicate. Farrow and Dennehy will be followed by Dennehy and Carol Burnett, then Candice Bergen and Alan Alda, Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg, and Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen, with more pairings to be announced.