by Brittany Crowell
Anyone who has ever been in love understands the pain of letting go of someone: how they linger; how they haunt you; the mix of becoming everything and nothing by them all at the same time. Ngozi Anyanwu’s The Last of the Love Letters at the Atlantic Theater Company (alternatively titled For all the Lovesick Mad Sad Geniuses) is a cry for lost love, a poem for the pain of leaving, and a song for the impossibility of holding on.
Broken into two segments, the piece finds strength in its universality. The chuckles, gasps, cheers, and applause from the audience confirm that Love Letters touches a nerve, one that is unanimously shared by anyone who has ever loved, lost, or walked away.
The piece is wonderfully lived by Daniel J. Watts and Ngozi Anyanwu’s physically dynamic performances (under the tutelage of director Patricia McGregor). We watch their characters speak, walk, and dance through the love letters they wish they could write. Both characters are trapped by their love: her in her lover’s apartment, or perhaps the memories that the surrounding physical pieces hold; him in a more literal hospital where a hazmat-ed “person” (Xavier Scott Evans) feeds him pills that send him deeper into his love-sick hallucinations. These performances alone are worth witnessing, as they bring such energy and life into the 75-minute monologue show.
Love Letters utilizes a mobile scenic element (expertly designed by Yu-Hsuan Chen) which bleeds out from the natural backdrop of the Linda Gross Theater and utilizes the natural structure of the space to bring us from one locked-in lover to the next. Lights by Stacey Derosier transport us to the various caverns within the mind of Watts’ narrative journey, and the sound by Twi McCallum upends the narrative, reminding us of the performative nature of theater and art, and that we are witnessing something bigger than ourselves.
Narratively, the first scene feels much more grounded than the second, longer monologue. In the opener, we follow the actor/author as she teeters between to stay or to go. After this, being transported to only one other lovesick individual was disappointing. While Watts’ energized performance was absolutely captivating, it was still not enough to sustain the remainder of the piece. Instead, I was left hoping that the two of them would intersect, we’d see her again, or we’d hear from another forlorn lover to further complicate the questions asked of this narrative: how many different forms can love take?
Why do we only see these two stories? Why do we linger so long on the second? Instead of giving us additional context or characters, the play drops a surprising twist at the end and the world shifts in a shock to the audience that causes a reevaluation of what we have been watching, but also confuses what was before a beautiful and relatable narrative and what could possibly have connected the two different pieces.
With the loss of gathering and communal art, The Last of the Love Letters touches meaningfully on that which many theater-lovers and artists have been mourning for the last 2 years in a beautiful return to the stage. It leaves us with the questions: how do we mourn what was lost? And more importantly: what do we want to continue to foster and grow?
LAST OF THE LOVE LETTERS – by Ngozi Anyanwu; directed by Patricia McGregor.
WITH: Ngozi Anyanwu (actor); Daniel J. Watts (actor); Xavier Scott Evans (person)
Sets by Yu-Hsuan Chen; Costumes by Dede Ayite; lighting by Stacey Derosier; sound by Twi McCallus. Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company: Niel Pepe, artistic director; Jeffory Lawson, managing director. At the Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street); 646-989-7996; https://atlantictheater.org/production/the-last-of-the-love-letters/. Through September 26. Running time: 75 minutes.