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'Love Letters' Brings Audience to Tears

Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy recreate a lifelong friendship through letters.

Love Letters by A. R. Gurney is the story of a lifelong friendship told entirely through letters. Last on Broadway in 1989, the show is back in a series of limited engagements, in which a pair of well-known, older actors performs together for a few weeks before being replaced by the next set. First on the docket is Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy, and they certainly made an incredible first impression.

The Simple Story of a Life

The premise of the play, a story told through "love letters," sounds at first like a cutesy, romantic idea, but that is far from what you get in this play. Love Letters encompasses two complicated, messy lives, of Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, touching on love and loss, divorce and remarriage, alcohol and addiction and more than anything, how we present ourselves to the world and to those we love the most.

On a stage bare of any decoration, with visible lights and rigging and only a table and two chairs for the actors to sit at, Love Letters may be an introduction to the art of the staged reading for many Broadway theatergoers. But any sense of, "They're just reading from scripts! Any half-decent actor could do that," is completely gone halfway through the play. Despite its bare bones set-up, this is a polished production.

The pair of actors take their characters through fifty years of time, and do it with subtlety and without losing an integral sense of their characters that isn't tied to age. While the small child voices at the beginning are a little grating, they do serve a purpose--especially when Farrow's character starts regressing back to that voice and that fragility with age.

A Dark and Gripping Production

There are hints of the dark undertones to the play from the very beginning, with Melissa's relationship with her stepparents, but it is shrouded in enough privilege and self-deception that the troubling moments of the piece still sneak up on you. Despite his role as "the successful one," Dennehy as Andy expertly performs the stoic confidence of a man who refuses to be seen at anything but his best, while Farrow's extraordinary depiction of Melissa's alcoholism and mental illness--complete with uncontrollable shaking and a growing inability to speak--left much of the audience in tears.

Andy and Melissa's story is told in fits and starts, with some very loud silences, and highlights what people won't say in a letter to the ones they love. It's often the gaps in the story that are the most important, what we never get to know: why marriages fail, how addictions start and just how lonely the pair of them really are. And whose fault is it that they keep just missing each other, both when traveling physically through space and when it comes to finding love?

What's in a Letter?

Love Letters does blur the boundaries of the letter a little; there are moments when Andy and Melissa exchange quick replies or talk over one another in imitation of a real conversation. But in a clever directorial decision by Gregory Mosher, the two actors never make eye contact throughout their entire 90-minute-long conversation.

There are certainly moments of humor as well in the play. Many of them come from remnants of an earlier era--the gossip exchanged between boys' and girls' boarding schools and colleges, the limited access to phones the characters struggle with and so forth. Love Letters is certainly witty, but it's strength is really in its heart-wrenching and profound elements. The way we speak in letters, more intimate and articulate but also more distant, is the perfect framework for this play, showing how we fall in love and how we struggle to connect.

While I am certainly fascinated by some of the later pairings of actors this production will see--most notably the surprising duo of Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen--this pair will take you through an entire lifetime in a heartbeat and still leave you wanting more. Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy are clearly masters of their art, and well worth seeing without any of the distractions of your typical Broadway show. It's all about the story.

Love Letters plays at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and currently runs through February 15.

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