Dallas — The co-stars of the 1970 hit movie Love Story ignite sweet nostalgia as they reunite in A. R. Gurney’s 1983 epistolary play Love Letters, in the latest touring production directed by Gregory Mosher. The show, part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series, is onstage at the Winspear Opera House.
The sentimental movie, in which a wealthy and well-connected Harvard hunk falls for a working-class girl, has a famous three-hanky conclusion and the deathless line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Okay, cynics, the line is half a century old—but we still wish it were true.
Gurney’s play, on the other hand, is made from the lifelong correspondence between Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (O’Neal) and Melissa Gardner (MacGraw). Both these New England WASPs are the rich and privileged offspring of New England money, childhood friends who stay connected to each other for 50 years, through the written word—even though they lead mostly separate lives.
Seated side by side at a table, the actors read the letters, notes, postcards and holiday greetings that express their on-again, off-again romantic connection, as well as their dealings with family obligations, personal hopes, political victories, crummy reviews or dark addictions.
Rich kids have problems too. There’s the endless list of chores, plus dancing school, hockey, rowing, summer camp. Andy has to go to an all-boys school because his parents want to prepare him for a life of public service. He rows and makes good grades and does the proper thing. Defiant Melissa, whose mom is a bit of a lush, tells her pen pal, “You shouldn’t always do what your parents want—like a dancing bear on a chain.”
But Andy hangs in there in prep school and at Yale. He works as a counselor over the summer to “help poor urban kids.” What a guy. When Melissa writes about partying, he scolds her, “What are you, a nympho? Don’t you ever think about poor people?” Andy goes to war, has a brief fling with a non-white woman, and eventually marries somebody named Jane. He has children, goes to work for a high-powered Manhattan law firm and eventually wins a seat in the U. S. Senate. Clearly, obedient rich boys who fulfill their parents’ expectations finish first. Actually, at Yale, Andy tells Melissa that he deliberately keeps his average at 91 because he’s been warned that “only Jews finish first.” Check.
Melissa, conversely, runs off to Italy to paint, escapes a disastrous marriage in a quick trip to Reno, flops in a Soho art show, and drinks her way across Europe and into a miserable rehab hospital. Rebellious females—even rich ones—are what keep trendy psychiatrists’ practices lucrative. Exactly.
Through it all, the two communicate in Gurney’s low-key, wry, stiff-upper-lip style. Oh, how WASPs long to be British! Melissa gets in an occasional plaintiff note, and Andy’s voice sounds occasionally regretful, but duty mostly guides this well mannered, writerly man.
Despite the narrow channel of the predicable script, MacGraw and O’Neal evoke a sweet, old-dears chemistry in their portrayal of two faithful correspondents, forever seeking their moment of real time together. They look great in their 70s. MacGraw, her gray hair pulled back to emphasize her expressive eyes and determined jaw, is handsome in a plain white shirt and silver necklace. O’Neal, his gray hair receding but still sporting a boyish smile, is just paunchy enough to be huggable.
Their verbal exchanges catch the bits of playful wit of young attraction in the early parts of the show. She smiles alluringly, suggesting he dare to telephone her. He demurs gruffly, insisting he can present himself much better in writing, thank you. She keeps writing, despite not hearing from him. He indicates the silent treatment by shoving his chair back and staring off into space.
For the most part, their 90-minute performance all seems rather long ago and far away, except for those lovely moments when these two charming actors convince us that love and friendship matter most in all our lives.