Love Letters by A.R. Gurney has moved into its next cast pairing: Candice Bergen as Melissa Gardiner, and Alan Alda as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III. It runs from now until December 18 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
Andy and Melissa establish an incredible relationship through letters which chronicle their often humorous observations and feelings from the age of seven in summer camp, through high school and college. Their correspondence traverses decades through silences and reconciliations, marriages, divorces, children, career adventures, and deaths.
Having seen the production with the previous cast of Carol Burnett and Brian Dennehy, I knew what to expect from the plot and Gurney’s timeless constructs about love, relationships and the opportunities missed because of ego and pride. These concepts and many more which thread through the characters’ responses to each other in a lifetime of writing is a historical record of their own development and the times in which they live.
However, Gurney’s play is so superbly crafted that his work is even more exciting when the various cast pairings sift Andy and Melissa through their individual talents to make these characters their own. If one goes back to see the production with alternate couplings, one has the opportunity to appreciate the human capacity for soul intimacy expressed via Gurney’s fine writing and beautifully conveyed by a variety of beloved, legendary actors from TV, theater and film.
My familiarity with the production allowed me to keenly observe Candice Bergen’s and Alan Alda’s interpretations of the personalities and relationship of these close friends. Both hit sterling notes. They colored shades of meaning that were amazingly varied from the previous pairing. I was thrilled and engaged by continual discovery.
Director Gregory Mosher retains the play’s usual setup: Bergen and Alda sit and read the letters. But what they particularly conveyed adds to the infinite variety and mystery of how performers create with their unique acting instruments. Equally potent in Bergen’s and Alda’s permutation is the characters’ intimacy, spiritual love, and ephemeral ties that connect and repel and connect. It is a journey of ups and downs which brings them to a profound level of understanding of themselves and each other by the play’s conclusion.
The result is intoxicating. What I noted immediately was a refreshing take on the circumstances of why Melissa and Andy only coupled briefly and why they could never form a lasting intimate marriage attachment. Gurney does suggest that the characters’ exchange of affection, love, and truthful selves via the written word is perhaps more revelatory than what might have been possible in a marriage. Imagination is a great part of their relationship; to remain very close, they must continually be apart; it is an important element of their love whose theme extends past the romantic to truth and forgiveness.
Candice Bergen’s ironic Melissa is portrayed with a blunt realism made alive through not only her voice, but her timing and apt facial expressions. Bergen’s artistry crafts an endearing Melissa who is soft around the edges and more and more vulnerable until the last moments of the play when she regains her position of strength and it is Andy who must seek her forgiveness.
In doing this he is able to redeem himself and reconcile the part of himself that he has tossed away for the sake of convention. Bergen conveys at the very end Melissa’s growth in confidence and power, while Carol Burnett’s portrayal stressed Melissa’s acceptance and inner peace. It was amazing to note the differences, however subtle, yet Burnett and Bergen both succeeded using their own found logic. Loved it!
Alan Alda’s portrayal of Andy is reserved, low-key, emphasizing Andy’s devotion to shouldering responsibility. His Andy is the mature one, continually living up to his parents’ values and their image of what he must be. An irony that was brought out in the couple’s interplay in this cast iteration is how each responds to his and her economic circumstances. Melissa could play the “elite” card of the rich since she has more wealth than Andy, but counters this impulse. She fights to expose the pretensions and hypocrisies of the culture, preferring rebellion, honesty and the offbeat creative life, even though it spins her away in dangerous directions. But she is real and down-to-earth and it is one of the things Andy loves most about her. And though she never gets to the end of herself and remains grappling with issues and lost for most of her life, she is found in her relationship with Andy.
Alda’s Andy is particularly inflexible when it comes to deviating from respectability and rectitude. The portrayal very clearly emphasizes that Andy becomes tangled in ambition and entrenched in his career to the extent that he isolates his inner core and manufactures an artificial life with family that appears perfect. By doing this he emotionally devastates himself. The only near-perfect relationship he has is with Melissa, and he allows that to slip through his fingers, remaining walled up by his parents’ strictures and morality to never break free.
Alda in particular characterizes this aspect of Andy, downplaying the boyishness and exuberance that Dennehy laced through his performance. The difference is intriguing, yet logic governed and governs both portrayals of Andy. One is not more correct than the other, they are just beautifully different. When Alda’s Andy breaks through his hardness to admit his profound love for Melissa, it is poignant and effective. Melissa has long forgiven him. It is Andy who must seek redemption for not acknowledging to himself that she is the only one who accepts, loves, and forgives him. He has been more real with her than with anyone else and she gave him the gift of himself. Whether Andy is able to improve his life remains to be seen. But he will always have the letters to inspire him and reaffirm his soul’s identity.
Diana Rigg and Stacy Keach: December 19th-January 9.
Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen: January 10th-February 15.