The Weird But Wonderful Love Affair Between Love Letters and Broadway

A. R. Gurney is a very thoughtful gentlemen (in every sense of the latter two words) whose Upper Class Wasp father was one uptight generation removed from the Buffalo, NY version of Willie Loman's Brother Ben, the one who declared "When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich!"

Like Ben, Gurney's visionary Grandfather walked along the Niagara River and saw great industrial opportunities in those riverbanks. "He was fearless and took lots of chances, started buying land there" and was soon a rich enough real estate Baron to win the hand of a well-bred, enchanting Buffalo gal Waspette. Gurney's grandmother understood how to control men -- at least all four of her sons -- and who else matters? "Either my father or one of his three brothers took turns visiting her each day and holding her hand. I think my Grandfather felt a bit ex-communicated from the family. I knew him as a partly retired banker who still liked to go to work. At home, he sat in the corner reading Dickens and didn't quite understand why I'd been sent away to an all-boy boarding school. From time to time he'd call over and ask me, 'Do you find any good chaps at that school?'" As for Alexander Graham Bell's new-fangled contraption, "My grandmother didn't like to use it. She said that when she ordered groceries over the telephone, she always had the feeling that someone might be making faces at her."

As a budding member of genteel society, Gurney first took pen in hand at the age of seven to compose formal acceptances to invitations and thank yous for gifts he'd received. Boarding school fostered his dexterity with paper and pen. He wrote to everyone but his parents, who called the headmaster when the mailman didn't deliver to make sure he soon would. His meticulous memories of the 50 years between 1937 and 1987 blended into Love Letters in 1989, a two-character play with enough global appeal to allow Gurney to give up his day job, teaching Humanities at MIT, and become a full time playwright.

Love Letters charts the jagged correspondence between the verbal, conventional Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (College, Navy, Law, Politics) and the avant-garde Melissa Gardener (flakey, rebellious, artistic) who prefers expressing her views in sketches rather than words. Childhood friends-cum-sorta star-crossed lovers, they eventually discover -- and briefly display -- their deep emotional attraction to each other, alas, too late for the ultra-responsible Andy to displace the satisfactory stability of career and family for uncertain bliss -- actually more like certain disaster -- with an undisciplined, unstable, addiction-hounded inamorata. Their correspondence not only describes their own imperfect joys, conflicts and despairs, it also exposes the changing culture that defines them. Ultimately, Melissa's amorphous life proves less satisfactory than Andy's. As she says, her family was richer, but also narcissistic and uncaring while his family ties supplied him with structure and high behavior standards, which ultimately sustained him and shaped his character. Still it ain't all sturm und drang. Gurney is a very wry, clever, witty and sometimes hilarious writer who frequently makes an audience roar with laughter.

Love Letters is performed by two comfortably seated actors, reading their lines rather than actively reciting memorized speeches. Gurney's words are beautifully served by the actors' body movements and facial and vocal expressions. I saw Love Letters during its first month when the stage was shared by an exquisite Mia Farrow and a stalwart Brian Dennehy. He's staying on for another month and will be sharing the stage with Wow! Carol Burnett, followed by Alan Alda and Candice Bergen, Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg and Angelica Houston and Former West Wing POTUS Martin Sheen, none of them schleppers. None of the above will disappoint. Besides this time the play really is the thing.

Gurney unhappily remembers Love Letters as being totally ignored by the New York Times when it was first produced in 1989 at the Promenade Theater and then practically ignored when it moved to the Edison Theater later that year. What says Google? That ain't necessarily so. The Times gave its debut a mixed review -- a phrase which Algonquin Round Table Icon, the once again alive and kicking playwright George S. Kaufman, defined as "good and rotten" -- so you can imagine everyone's ecstasy at the glowing you-name-it-and-they-loved-it reviews which the producers flaunted to promote ticket sales in a two-page ad in the following Sunday's Times Arts Section! Gurney's pleasure derived from a more emotional base. They finally got what he was doing! Of course, he told each one of his four children to be sure to pick up a copy of that Sunday Times. If I were he, I would have it carved on my tombstone.

The very prolific Gurney is a cross between Anton Chekhov and Alan Ayckbourn. Like Chekhov, Gurney has a feel for both farce and tragedy and writes about characters trapped in what they don't realize is an expiring culture. Like Ayckbourn, Gurney's bold and adventurous works also allow actors to play different parts on a set that travels through time and space.

This seems to be Gurney's year! In addition to his big Broadway hit, he's been named Signature Theater's Playwright-in-Residence and they'll be producing three of his plays this season including the coming-of-age What I Did Last Summer and the brand new Love and Money, a remembrance of times past among Buffalo's social set.

I wondered if Love Letters connected with younger people, so as I was leaving the theater I waylaid one and asked her. After a moment's thought she admitted sadly, "I've never received a love letter in my life. Not even a love e-mail," then wistfully inquired, "How do I meet somebody like Andy Lack?"

"You might stop hooking up with creeps and lowlifes in bars for one night stands," I suggested.

From the way she looked at me, I believe she took my recommendation under advisement.