'Love Letters' - Modest Epistolary Play Has Profound Impact

Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy in Love Letters
(©Carol Rosegg)

A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, which opened last night at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre, rests on the simplest of conceits. Theatergoers learn about a man and a woman’s life-long friendship through the letters, postcards, and obligatory notes and greeting cards that they send to one another over the course of 50 years.

The way in which the play is presented only enhances the piece’s overall modesty. Two actors sit behind a table and read the characters’ epistles to one another. As directed by Gregory Mosher and performed by Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow (who will be succeeded by other pairs of actorss as the run progresses), it’s a recipe for an amusing and ultimately deeply moving theatrical experience.

Dennehy and Farrow (later Dennehy and Carol Burnett; Alan Alda and Candice Bergen, etc.) play Andrew Makepeace Lord III and Melissa Gardner, two people whose first notes to one another come in 1937 just as she celebrates a birthday. Andrew (or Andy as he’s sometimes called) extends his acceptance to her party, and she, in due course, sends a thank you note for the Oz book he gave as a present.

As the years pass, there are other formal notes. There are also long letters in which they pour their hearts out to another. There are also awkward breaks in the lines of communication when anger has flared and one of them has stopped writing. (Both Dennehy and Farrow manage to fill the characters' silences marvelously.)

What emerges is a portrait of two people who care for one another deeply but, for a variety of reasons, just never manage to really connect romantically. One of the problems is temperamental. Andy, who eventually becomes a politician, could be considered something of a stuffed shirt. On the other hand, Melissa, who hails from a wealthier family, is more of a free spirit and also falls prey to personal demons brought on by family problems.

Dennehy, who has the less showy of the two roles, gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, finding innumerable ways to reveal what lies underneath Andy’s respectable and almost impenetrable facade. It’s fascinating to watch how the actor, with just a slight change to his body position in his chair, can communicate a wealth of emotion. After a letter that’s the equivalent of “let’s just be friends” that comes while the two are in college, Dennehy barely moves and yet, Andy seems to deflate entirely.

Because of Melissa’s extreme emotional swings, Farrow has the opportunity to turn in a more flamboyant performance, and yet, it’s one that never becomes strained or overblown. Further, the actress, who is returning to Broadway after an absence of 35 years, demonstrates her keen ability to use shifts in her voice to evoke a wide array of feelings, and when she takes her voice to her lowest register as Melissa admonishes Andrew, she scores a couple of the show’s biggest laughs.

Together, Dennehy and Farrow provide a lesson in how magical simplicity on stage can be. Much like Gurney’s play itself.

---- Andy Propst

Love Letters plays at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (256 West 47th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: lovelettersbroadway.com.