Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.
Lead Cast: Candice Bergen (Melissa Gardner), Alan Alda (Andrew Makepeace Ladd III)
Playwright: A. R. Gurney
Director: Gregory Mosher
In a Nutshell: This 1988 play by A.R. Gurney was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Often revived with rotating pairs of stars, it was first performed at the New York Public Library, starring the playwright and Holland Taylor. The action unfolds as the two actors sit next to each other at a table and read a lifetime of letters written to each other, beginning in second grade and spanning 50 years, as the lifelong friends share their secrets, dreams, frustrations, joys, and heartbreak.
They say, “write what you know.” Gurney, who prepped at St. Paul’s and attended Williams College and the Yale School of Drama, knows about WASPs—their schools, social obligations, and parental expectations. Love Letters, one of his best known and most successful plays, is perhaps the best example of his understanding of this rarified world. It is also a popular play among veteran performers, since, in the words of A.R. Gurney, it “needs no theatre, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines, and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance.”
The Plot: Melissa and Andrew both come from wealthy New York families, but Melissa’s family ranks at the very top of the 1%. Their correspondence begins in the second grade, when the well-bred Melissa pens a thank-you note to young Andy. She writes: “Dear Andy: Thank you for the birthday present. I have a lot of Oz books, but not ‘The Lost Princess of Oz.’ What made you give me that one? Sincerely yours, Melissa.”
Andy’s response: “I’m answering your letter about the book. When you came into second grade with that stuck-up nurse, you looked like a lost princess.”
We learn that Melissa is an artistic, somewhat rebellious “bad girl” whose socialite mother drinks too much and marries too often. Andy is an ambitious, socially conscious good boy who feels obliged to please his father.
Melissa often complains about the writing process, imploring her young pen pal, “Now let’s stop writing letters.” For Andy, however, writing the letters fulfills a deep emotional need. The adult Andy explains: “I have to keep writing letters. If I can’t write them to you, I have to write them to someone else. I don’t think I could ever stop writing completely.”
So, through elementary and prep school, college, law school, summer vacations, World War II, marriage, parenthood, success and disappointment, Melissa and Andy keep on writing, sharing their lives through letters. When one of them inevitably hurts or angers the other, the slighted actor simply stops reading, leaving the other to plead in a vacuum, waiting for a response.
While Melissa and Andy never settle down with each other in the conventional sense, they do maintain a love affair of sorts, sharing a life together through a lifetime of letters.
The Performances: The bare bones description of Love Letters—two actors sitting at a table reading letters for 90 minutes—belies how completely engaging and moving the play is, especially as performed by Candice Bergen and Alan Alda. While many excellent actors have had successful runs in the play, I can’t imagine a better pair than these two. Bergen, still blond and beautiful at 68, has Melissa’s natural patrician good looks. And her timing and reactions to Andrew’s words are perfect. She subtly but effectively changes her delivery and demeanor as the play progresses, accurately mirroring Melissa’s transformation from a sarcastic 7-year-old school girl to a shattered, disappointed adult. And I have to say, she just broke my heart.
Alan Alda, always a naturalistic and believable actor, has the right native New York accent and somewhat nebishy manner that are well suited to Andrew’s upright, needy persona. Amazingly, at 78, he still retains a boyish charm that works well in Love Letters.
Trivia: Candice Bergen made her Broadway debut in Hurlyburly, directed by Mike Nichols. She was last seen on Broadway in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. In 1958, at age 11, she appeared with her father (ventriloquist Edgar Bergen) on Groucho Marx’s quiz show You Bet Your Life. Bergen was married to French film director Louis Malle from 1980 until his death in 1995.
Alan Alda has been nominated for the Tony twice: for Jake’s Women and The Apple Tree. Previous to Love Letters, he twice portrayed a U.S. senator: Arnold Vinick on TV’s The West Wing from 2004-6 and Ralph Owen Brewster in Martin Scorcese’s 2004 film The Aviator (Oscar nomination). Alda was born Alphonso Joseph D’Abruzzo, the son of actor Robert Alda (Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo). Their adopted surname, “Alda,” is a portmanteau of ALphonso and D’Abruzzo.
Both actors are members of the Television Hall of Fame.
Should You Go? Yes! This Love Letters is a thoroughly satisfying theatrical experience. If you’ve never seen the play, here’s an opportunity to enjoy a top-notch production. If you have seen it, you won’t want to miss Bergen’s and Alda’s pitch perfect performances. (Hey, when else can you see Hawkeye Pierce and Murphy Brown together on stage?).
Note: Sadly, this show just posted an early closing (December 14) notice. Originally, Bergen and Alda appear were to appear through December 18, with other actors to rotate into the cast into 2015.