A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” has long been a dramatic cash cow for community theaters and professional theaters that offered, at face, no muss, no fuss.
After all the premise, and production of the show, tends to be pretty minimal. You have two actors on stage, scripts in front of them on a basic set, and they read the “love letters” between the couple as composed by the playwright. Within these letters, their story unfolds.
For community theaters, it’s a great play between huge musical productions since it puts fannies in the seats and doesn’t cost a lot to produce.
For commercial theaters, the show is great because it gives you the opportunity to plop a pair of celebrities in the role and use these brand names to push tickets. And the names don’t even have to be known as great thespians. For instance, Tony Dow—who played Wally on “Leave It To Beaver—and Larry Storch –from the 1960s sitcom “F-Troop” have been among the celebrities tapped to perform in “Love Letters” through the years.
Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal are the latest Hollywood actors to be tapped to perform the story about a couple raised in a privileged WASP-y life who share a lifetime of letters. Within these letters, the man and woman share their triumphs, tragedies, feelings, and, yes, love, with each other.
O’Neal and MacGraw are no strangers to each otherm having both appeared in the 1970 film “Love Story,” which garnered a slew of Academy Award nods (including best acting nominations for both performers).
This particular road tour arrived at The Bushnell in Hartford Tuesday, Feb. 9 and continues until Valentine’s Day on Sunday, Feb. 14.
Although I am familiar with the play and its reputation, I have never actually seen it. So I had the benefit (or handicap) of not having a benchmark for the performances. Both O’Neal and MacGraw were judged solely on what I saw on stage in Hartford on Feb. 9.
And I must say the evening totally floored me.
Both O’Neal and MacGraw excelled in their minimalist approach to the performance. It was clear they trusted the material. Their performances, as they read the script, helped guide the material. Their performances were transparent as the focus was put on the words in the letters that carefully mapped out the progression of their characters’ relationship and lives beyond the two of them.
Through their vocal modulation, and pregnant pauses, and just the slightest facial expressions, MacGraw and O’Neal created an emotional landscape for these characters. We laughed with them. We shared their frustrations. We shared their anger. We shared their joy. And we shared their sadness.
And the two performers managed to do this without ever leaving their seats on the stage.
As I watched the show, I thought about how the device of handwritten letters being shared seemed rather old-fashioned in this age of phone texts, Snapchat, and Facebook. But the emotions the two “lovers” go through in the exchange of postal deliveries—the excitement when letters come fast and furious or distress when there is a long pause between letters or there is a flurry of unanswered messages—is familiar to us still in this age of social media. Think about how many of us panic when a loved one does not return a text immediately, and how our minds create disastrous scenarios to explain the absence of replies. And think about how excited we get when we get “ding” after “ding” from our cellphones as messages are fired off in rapid pace. And think about the miscommunications that occur via words when we are unable to respond immediately and we don’t have the benefit of audible cues and facial cues to fill in the gaps left by our verbiage.
The fact that O’Neal and MacGraw were brand names helped bring people to the Bushnell. But, I think what made the evening a success was the pair also showed their experience as superb actors.
For an evening out that reminds us of the troubled waters we traverse through love, there probably is no better choice for a Valentine’s Day outing than “Love Letters” at the Bushnell this week.
I give the show four out of four stars.
As an aside, this is a play so be prepared to sit in silence as the performers do their thing. There were a few fidgety souls on Tuesday who obviously were new to theater etiquette or unfamiliar with the process of sitting and listening.
Performances at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford are tonight and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Ticket prices start at $25.50. Tickets are available online at www.bushnell.org, by phone at (860)987-5900, or at The Bushnell box office, 166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford.