Love Story Heartthrobs in LOVE LETTERS Play

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Love Story Heartthrobs in LOVE LETTERS Play

Love Letters

Posted on June 8, 2016

Love Letters, gracing the Hippodrome’s boards this week, is a nearly idiot-proof show. All it absolutely requires is two performers who can read aloud. No memorization, no blocking, very little interaction. The two performers are asked to perform one task only: read letters aloud, thereby becoming vehicles for playwright A. R. Gurney‘s gentle tragicomedy of love and loss among mid-20th Century upper crust New England WASPs. It would take two extraordinarily inept performers to wreck the show.

Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal are far from extraordinarily inept; to the contrary, they are talented screen actors. And therein lies the beauty of this production: even if the stage is not their natural turf, they can surmount the mild challenges that this show presents; the play might be written for movie stars. It fact it is apparently written for almost anyone. It has been presented with couples young and old, famous and obscure.

Of course, it does not hurt at all that McGraw and O’Neal are so connected in their audiences’ memory. Practically everyone has seen their memorable first joint outing, the much-loved (if also occasionally derided) film Love Story (1970). And there is a natural curiosity to see how they and their chemistry have weathered the intervening nearly half-century, not to mention the ring of the titles Love Story and Love Letters. The show is a natural audience draw.

The audience will not be disappointed. The stars look older, naturally, as do we all, but they have aged gracefully, and their chemistry seems intact. Though the show does not call for them to interact directly except at the very last moment (their reactions are saved for the letters they are writing and reading), they must still time their speeches and reactions to each other. Under Gregory Mosher‘s intelligent direction, the varied rhythms of the show flow correctly.

The issue this show brought to the forefront for me was not anything to do with the acting or the directing, but with the play itself. It’s fairly weak tea. I suppose there are many who can bring themselves to care deeply about these bright but not bright enough rich kids, Andy and Melissa, and their triumphs and failings, and their inability to recognize early enough so it would do them much good that they were meant for each other. But at their heart, there is something un-universal about these stories.

Dramatic characters, like real people, are products of their time and place, but that seems especially true of Andy and Melissa, and A. R. Gurney gets the details convincingly right to make us believe it. That is a double-edged achievement. The child-rearing preppies of that era received, and the courtship customs they engaged in seem to make them, for all their prolific epistolary output, singularly bad at choosing loves and spouses, and inarticulate until it is really too late in the pursuit of each other. At the same time, these people were the masters of the universe in their time. Andy, for instance, goes from Ivy law school to Supreme Court clerkship to flossy New York firm to U.S. Senate. Doors flung open to him would have been closed to most of his contemporaries, and his marriage, somewhat emotionally unfulfilling but correct in terms of dynastic dynamics, is a part of his ability to walk through those doors. How much empathy, sympathy, or identification can the audience lavish on him? We don’t generally cry much over poor little rich girls, or boys.

The continued popularity of the play argues that there are those who care enough. Perhaps it may be the epistolary format. There is some discussion, chiefly by Andy, of the virtues of letter-writing as opposed to other forms of communication, and its frequent superiority to conversation. And that is true at least as a dramatic convention; the play exemplifies the power of the epistolary drama. It requires, simply for plausibility, that the correspondents not be close enough so that conversation would be a more frequent and natural form of interaction. But when the point of the show is the tragedy that life and bad choices have kept these two apart, the form and the message merge beautifully. The audience grows subliminally as frustrated for itself and for the characters as they become for themselves.

Are letters really a better way of communicating in real life? That’s a big discussion for a forum other than a theater review. But my own feeling, as one who can remember the era of the play, a time when one wrote lots of love letters, when loved ones were far away and the daunting tolls of long distance made extended conversation dauntingly expensive, is that things are better now, with cellphones and texting and e-mail. I would not go back.

Another conversation for another day, however. Meanwhile, if you love the play, if you want to Oliver and Jennifer again (sort of), or you just want to see two old professionals having gentle fun together, this show’s for you.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo

Photo Credit: Jason Gillman

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