If A. R. Gurney had chosen to write about a less wealthy boy and girl in a poorer section of New England, his 1988 Love Letters would have felt a bit like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. There is the same all-but-bare stage, the same device of speaking directly to the audience, the same tracking of the couple’s lives from school days through adulthood, and the same sad destiny awaiting its ill-fated heroine. But where Wilder’s George and Emily were inseparable and blissful despite their ordinary existence, Gurney’s preppie Andrew (Alan Alda) and Melissa (Candice Bergen) grow more distant with every privilege given them. As they relate their story by means of reciting the letters written to each other over their lifetime, the missed connections, the roads not taken, and the unhappy results of not being there for each other build poignantly toward an ending of regret.
An author’s note by Gurney explains that this is the “sort of play which needs…no memorization of lines, and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance.” The performers simply sit side by side at a wooden table, water glass at the ready, and read directly from their scripts, like a Spalding Gray monologue in duplicate. As such, this production is offering up a virtual round-robin of famous names to draw in the crowds. The first incarnation featured Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow, and in coming weeks such veterans as Martin Sheen and Anjelica Huston will be gracing the stage. So what is there to say about Alda and Bergen when their task is essentially to read aloud? Well, one can say that they have both aged gracefully and that their ultra-familiar voices are still in fine form. And one can say that here they get the chance to play to their strengths. Alda can deliver a punch line as well as anyone in the business and he’s given numerous opportunities to show his stuff. His otherwise unadorned oratory fits nicely with Andrew’s cold demeanor. Unfortunately, Alda wears rather thick reading glasses which pick up the reflection from Peter Kaczorowski’s straight forward lighting, rendering us unable to see what is going on in his eyes during most of the performance. Luckily, this is not the case with Ms. Bergen, a pro at riding that fine line between comedy and tragedy. Her penetrating baby-blues show the subtle panic that Melissa seems to always be carrying.
But really, the evening belongs to Gurney (with an able assist by director Gregory Mosher) and his ability to build a love story so effectively within the framework to which he restricts himself. He plants seeds in their childhood letters that bloom in their later years. He finds heartbreak in the simplest of declarations. He craftily employs long pauses as we wait to see if Melissa will choose to respond to Andrew, or if she’ll let months worrisomely go by. He marks painful periods of trying to get along without each other by conjuring years where their only correspondence are Christmas cards. He even gets away with quoting the last lines of Paradise Lost. Only in the last minute of the play does he make a false move, giving Melissa the final word when her silent presence would have been a more fitting p.s.
Scenic design by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Scott Lehrer; technical supervision by Hudson Theatrical Associates; production stage manager, Matthew Farrell; company manager, Elizabeth M. Talmadge; associate producers, Jonathan Demar and Jeffrey Solis; general manager, Peter Bogyo. Presented by Nelle Nugent, Barbara Broccoli, Frederick Zollo, Olympus Theatricals, Michael G. Wilson, Lou Spisto, Colleen Camp, Postmark Entertainment Group, Judith Ann Abrams/Pat Flicker Addiss and Kenneth Teaton, in association with Jon Bierman, Daniel Frishwasser, Elliott Masie, Mai Nguyen, Paige Patel and Scott Lane/Joseph Sirola. At the Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47th Street, Manhattan, 800-982-2787, www.ticketmaster.com. Through Feb. 15. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.