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CRITIC AT LARGE

Dear Gena and Ben: We Loved You in 'Love Letters'

July 10, 1990|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | TIMES ARTS EDITOR

There is nothing like an authentic phenomenon to pep up the idea of theatergoing, and A. R. Gurney's "Love Letters" is an authentic, no-question-about-it phenomenon and hit. It reaches its 100th performance this week at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, with Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry as the latest in a long procession of couples who have read Gurney's mail.

Last week it was Gena Rowlands and her old comrade-in-craft from her late husband John Cassavetes' films, Ben Gazzara, playing Melissa and Andy. Their performances concluded Sunday night. Rowlands, who has Academy Award nominations under her belt for "A Woman Under the Influence" and "Gloria" and almost every other acting honor you can think of, foreign and domestic, had done the Gurney play once before, a single offering aboard a cruise ship.

After Friday night's sold-out performance, Gazzara said, "I read the text for the first time last Sunday night on the plane flying back from Rome so I could do it with this great lady." Gazzara has an arm's-long list of stage and screen credits from "End as a Man" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" to "A Letter to Three Wives" and Cassavetes' "Husbands." He was mastering the character of Matt while performing him, and his portrayal at week's end was strong and sure.

The staged reading is not unprecedented. You think of Paul Gregory's touring productions of Stephen Vincent Benet's "John Brown's Body" and Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell" with Charles Laughton and other stars. Two-character plays are not unprecedented either, and "Two for the Seesaw" shines in memory.

But the novelty of a fast-rotating cast is unprecedented, so far as I know, and the sight of two actors reading from three-ring notebooks at an inlaid refectory table on an otherwise bare stage will look unprecedented.

For the actor and actress, the nature of the play is a real and testing challenge. They are denied the use of body language, which is like playing quarterback with your ankles lashed together or trying to zip up a zipper with one hand. The acting has to be all voice and eyes--and the uses of silence.

Gurney's silences--the letters not answered--are as eloquent as anything this side of Harold Pinter. "Love Letters," as must by now be known by everyone who cares about the stage at all, follows the relationship of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner from grade school through the next half-century of their lives: their lives apart, rather more than together, so that we hear their letters, which are childish, petulant, funny, snappish, pleading, apologetic, concealing, revealing, sexy, defensive, eloquent and, in the end, very affecting indeed in the pain and disappointment they disclose.

Gurney's structure is clever, but his success with it is magical. Having laughed a very great deal in the course of the evening, you are first astonished and then moved to realize how much you have learned about these two people, and how much you care.

They come out of a world that John O'Hara knew and wrote about, the Manhattan-Connecticut-Ivy League-Seven Sisters-Wall Street world of the quite rich and the even richer. The riches lead in Andy's case to a kind of driving ambition that seems motivated equally by noblesse oblige, conformity and a liking for power for its own sake.

In Melissa's case, the riches lead to rebellion against and resignation to the expectations of class (both responses equally unsatisfactory). The ultimate perception is that money is an inadequate consolation prize for whatever you really wanted and didn't get.

Unlike the poor-little-rich-girl and poor-little-rich-boy romances, comedic and otherwise, of the Broadway-Hollywood past, Gurney's boy/man and girl/woman are too real and individual to be enjoyed and then dismissed as merely fictional types. In "Love Letters," one sees the hurt beneath his stuffiness and her caustic impudence. Their autumnal awareness that things have not worked out quite as they imagined and that time has slipped away from them is much closer to Chekhov than to Culver City.

These characters don't float out of mind as you leave the foyer--not as Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands delineated them, and not, I'm sure, as the other castings have enacted them, either.

It's true, of course, that there are as many Hamlets as there are actors (and, indeed, actresses) who have played him. I suspect, having seen only the Gazzara-Rowlands casting, that Andy and Melissa change subtly but interestingly with each new team. It is a tribute to the text's powers of implication, and to the powers of the performers.

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