Two chairs. Two stacks of letters. Two stars. And almost 50 years’ worth of memories, hopes, setbacks, and triumphs.
A.R. Gurney created this remarkably potent recipe almost by accident back in 1988, when he did a live reading of his fictional letters at a New York Public Library function. More than a quarter century later, the resulting play, Love Letters, has been seen everywhere from Miami and Moscow to the courtroom during the O.J. Simpson trial (as a command performance for the sequestered jury). Along the way, a virtual Hollywood Walk of Fame has taken the stage, two by two, to sit down, pick up the letters, and tell the story of Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III through those letters—leaving the enduring message: you never forget your first love.
Now it’s coming back to Broadway for the first time in 25 years — and for the first time ever, the production will showcase nine brilliant actors in these two iconic roles, each for four weeks only. Brian Dennehy, Mia Farrow, Carol Burnett, Alan Alda, and Martin Sheen are just a few of the names who will perform in Love Letters, which begins performances September 13 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
“It’s a play that constantly surprises me,” says the prolific Gurney (Sylvia, The Cocktail Hour), who has lost track of how many times he has seen it. Part of that surprise comes from the flexibility of the roles, which have been played by a wide variety of actors. But the biggest surprise for him at first was that Love Letters was a play at all. Gurney originally took what he thought of as his “quasi-contemporary epistolary novel” and submitted it to The New Yorker to see if the magazine would publish an excerpt. “Within a week, they got back to me and said, ‘We don’t publish plays.’ It was only then that I started to think it might be a play.”
And once Gurney conceived of his letters as a play, he never looked back. The show was quickly mounted Off-Broadway—playing on Sundays in a theatre that was housing another of Gurney’s plays the rest of the week—and then it quickly transferred to Broadway. And before long it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Not a bad run for an “accidental” play.
That trend of bringing in notable actors will continue in the new production. Dennehy and Farrow will take on the roles first, and then Farrow will be replaced by Carol Burnett. Among those scheduled to join the cast later are Candice Bergen, Alan Alda, Diana Rigg, Stacy Keach, Anjelica Huston, and Martin Sheen. Gurney, who has also directed productions of the play, takes pride in the versatility of these performers. “I’ve discovered that the actors can be very, very different and still very effective,” he says, as long as the two leads are roughly the same age.
With so many terrific performers coming and going, director Gregory Mosher is making a point of not imposing an eye-catching concept on the piece. “The concept is that it’s two great actors and Pete’s great script, and I’m going to listen,” he says. (Gurney is known throughout the theater world as “Pete.”) “My goal is that afterward, my friends will say, ‘Now, what was it that you did?’”
Mosher, who has directed such hard-hitting works as Glengarry Glen Ross and That Championship Season on Broadway, says he is enjoying the shift to showing audiences the emotional and moving journey told through decades of Melissa and Andrew’s letters.
“Take the idea of ‘Jack loves Jill, but Jill doesn’t love Jack,’” Mosher explains. “Chekhov wrote that to the hilt, and so have a lot of other people. But this is ‘Jack loves Jill, and Jill also loves Jack, but they just can’t work it out.’ That feels very real to me, and it’s something that no other playwright has ever done as well as Pete has here.”