When A.R. Gurney wrote “Love Letters,” the playwright was fed up with theater. And what became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama wasn’t meant for the stage at all.
He had sent the manuscript to The New Yorker, which promptly sent it right back.
“We don’t publish plays,” they said.
The book he imagined — chronicling five decades of written correspondence between lifelong friends Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner — transformed into a two-person play, where the actors read letters back and forth to one another.
By the late 1980s, the piece was ready, and instead of giving a preplanned speech at the New York Public Library, he sat opposite his friend and collaborator, actress Holland Taylor, with a stack of letters, and they began to read.
An hour later, no one wanted to leave — and he knew they were onto something.
“Love Letters” has toured throughout the United States, Europe and even Pakistan, adapted into Urdu and Indian in 1992. Its long cast of A-listers include Carol Burnett, Alan Alda, Candice Bergen, Alec Baldwin, Anjelica Huston, Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Daniels, Elizabeth Taylor, James Earl Jones, Christopher Reeve, Martin Sheen, Stockard Channing, Christopher Walken and on — but it first debuted in 1988 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, where Michael Disher saw it many years later.
“It’s one of these theater pieces, you look at it, you listen to it, you read it and you say, ‘Okay, it is a play … well, no, it’s not a play, it’s just letters. But wait, it is a play,’” Disher said. “You don’t really know what it is, other than it is extremely touching and it is an absolute delight for the two performers — and, in my case, the four performers.”
For the Southampton Cultural Center’s iteration of “Love Letters” — opening Friday, February 8 — the cast will rotate, Disher explained. Both Andrews, portrayed by Daniel Becker and John Leonard, will sit opposite both Melissas, acted by Barbara-Jo Howard and Catherine Maloney, by switching partners on Sundays.
“It’s like they’re talking to someone similar, but someone completely different,” the director said. “I don’t think it’s a different experience for the audience, but it’s a very different experience for the actors. They never really exactly know where it’s going to take them. They have their set parameters, but everything in between will hinge upon the delivery of their fellow actor, and also reaction from the audience. I don’t know if people will be very quiet and very attentive during this piece, or whether they will find so much of it funny, as we do.”
The letter writing begins in 1937, when Andrew formally accepts the invitation to Melissa’s second grade birthday party, and their personalities are established from the start. Both born into wealth and position, he is stiff and dutiful, while she is artistic, reckless and, ultimately, self-destructive — and yet they are drawn to one another platonically, romantically and otherwise.
“Michael has always cast me — and it’s a great thrill to me — in a role of a completely different human being. And here I am, again, now playing a New England WASP,” Becker said with a thick New Jersey accent. “What attracts me now to Andy is playing another 100-percent completely different character and that’s the joy of it, to me, and the challenge.”
With choreographed gestures, facial expressions and feet positioning, the actors sit side by side, never looking at one another as they read — reacting to the letters instinctively, rather than with much practice, Maloney explained.
“You’re sitting at a table, basically, with your partner and it’s a challenge because I’m not to look at Andy, at all, throughout the course of the play,” she said. “There are times you’re tempted to respond and look at your fellow actor, but you can’t. So that was a very different setting for me. There’s also very little rehearsal time. Michael Disher didn’t want us to be over-rehearsed for this. He wanted it to be very natural in our responses. He wanted it to come out more authentically and not too rehearsed.”
As the on-stage relationship ebbs, flows and flourishes, Disher said he hopes the audience reflects on the lost art of letter writing, the fleeting nature of time and the fluctuations of love itself.
“It’s not always love at first sight, and it always doesn’t end that quickly. It’s like breathing — you inhale and exhale,” he said. “I think ‘Love Letters’ has, perhaps, the most bulletproof ending ever. It is designed to elicit one emotion and one emotion only, and it gets the goods every time. No matter how many times we do it — everybody knows what’s coming, they know the inevitability — it just gets every single person every time. And it’s terrific. It is absolutely terrific. It’s touching, it’s beautiful, it’s intimate. You want to hold the hand of the person you’re sitting next to.”
“Love Letters” will open on Friday, February 8, at 7 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center, located at 25 Pond Lane in Southampton. Additional performances will be held on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through February 17. Tickets are $25 and $12 for students. For more information, call (631) 287-4377 or visit scc-arts.org.