Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
Alan Alda and Candice Bergen replaced Carol Burnett and Brian Dennehy as the two life-long pen pals that rarely physically connect in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on November 9. This third Broadway rotation of famous pairs follows the play’s usual bare-basics format, with no real set– just two chairs, a table, two scripts, two beverages and two actors that remain on stage reading letters placed in a binder. Alda and Bergen enter with no pomp, merely suddenly appearing on stage: She in a soft, dark sweater and pants; He in a blue button-down topped with a gray blazer.
Without changing sets or elaborate costumes, the play relies on the actor’s physical interactions and pacing to add intimacy during the letter reading of the 50-year correspondence between Connecticut elites Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Alda) and Melissa Gardner (Bergen). Despite a slow start, where seven-year-old versions converse at length about drawing pictures for one another and other childhood sundries, Gurney’s tale, ultimately, becomes moving as the letters’ simplicity convey the humor and tragedy of life in a compact 90 minutes.
While such a scaled-down concept allows for poignant sentimentality, it offers little context. While, the play touches on serious issues like sexual abuse and fractured families, it does so without ever delving deeply into these situations—allowing time between confessions to flash forward without much commentary from the other party. Even when Melissa tells Andy she’s going to see her father with his new family in California and he prods her persistently, “Write me about California. How’s your second family?,” she only eventually replies that she doesn’t have any such thing. This happens often: a character reveals some horror without any follow-up.
It is not the clichéd story that grabs the audience here—where the man becomes a senator with the perfect wife, who works part-time sales in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift shop, and three strapping sons and the free-spirited Melissa travels the world but ends up depressed, divorced and spending $155 a day drying out in rehab—rather the reassuring idea that even unfulfilled promise can elevate the importance of human existence.
Gurney’s play initially opened at New York’s Promenade Theater in 1989 and has become a regular staple of regional theater since, probably because it is easily mounted and allows actors a platform that requires no dancing, accents or pages of memorization. In this version, Alda often relies on his script, and goes for handfuls of minutes without making eye contact with the audience. Still, he imbues Andy with the proper New England remoteness and pomposity that hints of an underlining sensitivity of a more thoughtful man. Bergin is the opposite; she animates Gurney’s words with eye rolls, grimaces and gesticulations. Sometimes, all the activity feels over-the-top but she makes Melissa likable and fun, even as the character’s life darkens. It’s nice to see Bergen back on Broadway in a bigger role than in her last venture as another suffering wife in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.
Alda and Bergen appear in Love Letters until December 18th. Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg star in the show from December 19th-January 9 and Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen from January 10-February 15.