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STAGE : Keep Those 'Letters' Coming : A.R. Gurney's 'sort of a play' about two friends features a different cast every outing

December 30, 1990|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg writes about the arts for The Times.

Playwright A.R. Gurney wasn't so sure his new play, "Love Letters," had much of a future. He sent it to the New Yorker, and the New Yorker sent it right back. He didn't even think it was stageworthy.

Never mind that Gurney is the man who wrote both "The Dining Room" and "The Cocktail Hour," two hit plays chronicling the world of well-educated, well-off white Anglo Saxon Protestants. When the New York Public Library booked him to speak, and he didn't much like their topic, he decided to test his unconventional manuscript on the library audience.

Gurney and actress friend Holland Taylor read the first half of the play that evening, then wanted to stop because the audience only expected a 40-minute speech. "But they all stayed and wanted to see the rest," recalls the New York-based playwright. "People came up to me afterwards, and I could tell by the enthusiasm and the applause--I knew we had something."

He sure did. After stops both off and on Broadway last year, "Love Letters" has already gone on to play in more than 25 U.S. cities and a dozen foreign countries. It is about to start its 40th week at the 382-seat Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills--where it recouped its initial investment after 10 weeks--and just a few weeks ago, Columbia Pictures announced a future film version.

Gurney's theatrical Comstock Lode consists of a lifetime of correspondence between Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, two fictitious upper-class WASPs. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic, the letters take the two friends and sometime lovers from second grade through middle-age.

This is dramatic stuff: lawyer Ladd's glide ever-upward through Yale and Harvard Law School into the U.S. Senate parallels artist Gardner's slide downward through bad marriages and alcoholism. Reviews have been both positive and numerous, and Time magazine called "Love Letters" "one of the four or five best American plays of the '80s."

All of the action is read rather than acted out, and staging is Spartan. Onstage are two nicely dressed actors who face the audience rather than one another. They sit side by side behind a mahogany desk which itself sits on an Oriental rug. A decanter of water and a glass are in front of each performer.

So much for sets, costumes and props. His "sort of a play," Gurney says, is very easy to do, one of three reasons he offers for its vast appeal. Reason two, he says, is that "the characters and conflict are very clear, and three, it's a good story, a good love story in the star-crossed lovers tradition."

New York Times critic Mel Gussow called the play "a work of modest intentions and modest achievement," but both he and other critics pointed to the substantial demands the show makes on its actors.

Its simplicity is deceptive, cautions Meredith Baxter-Birney, who has appeared in the show with four different partners. "People say 'I saw you read "Love Letters," ' but it is by far one of the most demanding roles I have ever done in terms of the intense concentration," says the actress, adding that her last performance even left her with a headache for a few days. "With other roles, there's more physical action--you have props, blocking, eye contact, maybe physical contact with other actors. Here I work off the words, and the rest I create on my own."

At the Canon, as at most other places the show has played, the cast generally changes on a weekly basis. More than 150 actors have appeared in Gurney's epistolary drama since it opened in February, 1989, at New York's Promenade Theatre with John Rubinstein and Kathleen Turner.

Actress Swoosie Kurtz has described the roster as "musical celebrities," and the Los Angeles production alone has included such performers as Kurtz with Ed Begley Jr. and Charlton Heston with Jean Simmons. Such younger on-stage pairings as Andrew McCarthy with Molly Ringwald and Matthew Broderick with Helen Hunt have been among the show's best-sellers locally.

"The ever-changing actor is certainly a part of the play's success," says Richard Frankel, one of the show's co-producers in New York and elsewhere. "People come to see their favorite actors do the play . . . (but) if the play weren't so good, the rotating of the actors wouldn't help. The arc of the play is so grand, it's almost an epic, and people become very engaged. There's so much for actors to deal with in this play."

Ask Gena Rowlands, currently onstage with Ben Gazzara in the show for the third

time. "I think in a lot of people's lives, there is someone they feel they missed, for some reason, whatever it was," says Rowlands, who first appeared in "Love Letters" with Cliff Robertson on a cruise ship to Egypt. "The audience can empathize with that, and the idea of a (long) friendship, even if they aren't people who went to boarding schools or are members of a superwealthy class. Who does it not appeal to?"

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