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ANN CONWAY

Argyros and Emmes Sign on to 'Letters' for Love, Fun

June 30, 1997|ANN CONWAY

We had a complicated relationship, she and I, all our lives. . . . Melissa expressed all the dangerous and rebellious feelings I never dared admit to.

A.R. Gurney

"Love Letters"

*

Matthew Broderick read them with Helen Hunt. Gena Rowlands with Ben Gazzara. Swoozie Kurtz with Ed Begley Jr.

From New York to San Francisco, playwright A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" has been performed by a roster of celebrities.

Sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic, the letters, notes and postcards take two friends from second grade through middle age.

Now those letters are coming to South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa for a onetime benefit performance July 12.

Don't look for the usual stage names however. SCR is showcasing its producing artistic director, David Emmes, and philanthropist Judie Argyros in the roles of upper-class WASPS Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner.

Staging their performance is Martin Benson, SCR's artistic director.

"There's a spirit of fun about this because David is rusty after years--many years--of not being on the stage," Benson says. "And Judie is pretty new to this. So it's a little bit of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and, 'My uncle has a barn and let's put on a play!' "

*

Emmes, a former actor, chose to co-star with Argyros at the benefit after watching her do some impromptu acting during a theater party at her Newport Beach home.

"Last summer, Judie and I were improvising as we announced that SCR's Tony Award had been 'stolen,' " Emmes says. "And, as I watched Judie in front of all these people, I saw that, clearly, there was a real natural talent there."

Working with experienced actors on a project can be just as challenging as working with a nonprofessional, Benson says. "Sometimes, when you work with actors, you have a lot of mannerisms and things to get rid of."

It is the director's task to "shape and draw out the virtues of each actor and minimalize the problem areas," Benson says. "The goal is to realize all that is actually there in the text while bringing out the talents of the actors themselves and their unique approach to the work."

"Greetings from Palm Beach. Decided to visit my grandmother. Yawn, yawn. I'm a whiz at backgammon and gin-rummy. Hear you took Gretchen Lascelles to see Quo Vadis and sat in the loges and put your arm around her and smoked! Naughty, naughty!"

Rehearsing onstage at SCR, Argyros reads this note by Melissa with brightness and clarity.

Seated in the theater's first row, Benson listens carefully, then approaches the stage. Slow the tempo on the "yawns," he says. Better yet, eliminate one "yawn" altogether, he decides. Argyros reads again. Benson asks for a sarcastic tone in the "backgammon and gin-rummy" line. "Melissa is bored," he says.

Argyros reads it again. "Good job," he says, sitting down.

Then he's up again. "Naughty, naughty" needs a mocking tone, he says. Argyros reads it again. And again.

Benson is pleased. "Judie has a great spirit about her," he says during a break. "She has a unique, non-actor's--but very creative person's--take on the material."

For Benson, the project is a nice change from the demanding pace of regular theater productions. "It's not four weeks of rehearsals and Equity contracts and casting actors," he says.

Says Argyros: "It's a wonderful learning experience. But it's not easy."

"I hate talking to you on the telephone. Yours is in the hall and ours is right by the college dining room. People are always coming and going and making cracks. Telephoning is not letter writing at all."

After Emmes reads this, Benson shares an insight: "She likes the phone; he likes the distance letters provide."

The Melissa character, Benson explains, is a "free spirit, an artist . . . David's character is a very put-together person who is looking for structure. His seeking structure maddens her sense of seeking chaos, and yet, he feels a need to have some of her sense of spontaneity. And she needs a sense of order in her life."

Andrew's ascent through Yale and Harvard Law School into the U.S. Senate parallels Melissa's slide downward through bad marriages and alcoholism. But the friendship survives.

Observes Emmes: "Underneath all of the letters, despite their fallings out, their anger, hurt, is the basic visceral connection or feeling for each other that is never destroyed in the relationship."

"Oh, I've made a mess of things, Andy. I've made a total, ghastly mess. I don't like life anymore. I hate it. Sometimes I think that if you and I had just . . . if we had just . . . oh but just stay away, Andy. Please."

Feeling Melissa's pain is draining, Argyros admits. "Going home from a rehearsal I feel very tired from putting out the energy and emotion. But at the same time, it's fabulous."

* In addition to "Love Letters," SCR's Summer Spotlight benefit will feature a buffet dinner, silent auction and dessert reception. Tickets are $100, $150 and $250 (the big ticket includes a champagne reception with Argyros and Emmes after the production.) For information, call (714) 957-2602, Ext. 219.

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