"Love Letters" transferred from Off-Broadway to the Edison Theatre on October 31, 1989. Following is Mel Gussow's original review.
In ''Love Letters,'' A. R. Gurney has written an evocative epistolary account of two charter members of the privileged set. In less than two hours, we see Andrew Makepeace Ladd 3d and Melissa Gardner over a period of 50 years, as the author carries them from second grade through the trauma of adulthood, marriage, divorce and middle age. Despite the scope of the story, this is a work of modest intentions and modest achievement.
The play, which opened last night at the Promenade Theater, is not to be confused with Mr. Gurney's more fully realized efforts (plays that include ''The Dining Room'' and, more recently, ''The Cocktail Hour''). It is a staged reading and, at the same time, a theatrical contrivance. But within self-imposed limitations, it has dramatic assets. Written with Mr. Gurney's customary authenticity, it becomes an often humorous Baedeker to a place and time, America -and an American elite - at midcentury.
Not least of all, it is, in performance, a testimony to the actor's art, a theatrical exercise in which actors, far more than in less schematic surroundings, have to draw upon their own intuitive resources - without the benefit of physical interaction or scenic effects - in order to create character and conflict.
''Love Letters'' is unadorned theater, what the English would describe as a platform piece. It has been presented for limited performances since last February, with actors alternating in the roles. It is now being performed for a special eight-week engagement, with a new cast each week, beginning with John Rubinstein and Stockard Channing.
It would be difficult to imagine a finer pair of performances (although one of the rewards of the play would be to see the dimensions brought to it by different actors). Mr. Rubinstein and Ms. Channing are persuasively in character as these ultimate WASPs - Andy, already stuffy at the age of 7 and sometimes insufferable when he becomes a United States Senator, and Melissa, an undisciplined and unhappy woman all of her life. As Melissa observes late in the play, it is astonishing that the two of them could have come from such similar backgrounds yet turn out to be so radically different.
Through the eyes of the two characters, the author offers a cross-section of Gurney country, a rigidly stratified society that is defined by the proper schools, parental expectation and a kind of benign paternalism toward those less fortunate. Neither character is especially admirable, a fact that may limit the audience's sympathy, but the actors, as directed by John Tillinger, enhance one's interest.
The play works precisely because there are only two people on stage, sitting at a table and reading to each other from a book of letters. Were the reading to be fully staged, one would be even more aware of the banalities of the shared lives.
At first, the two exchange notes and Valentines in grade school, soon replaced by letters and picture postcards, each of which retains the characters' idiosyncracies. Andy remains instructive; Melissa is defined by her spontaneity, by her ability to speak her mind in print. Even in adulthood she fills her letters with childish effusions, some of which, to the play's advantage, could be excised (as letter writers, both are oceans away from such correspondents as George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Campbell). That Ms. Channing manages to find meaning in these lines is a tribute to her own acting art.
In several minor senses, the play challenges credibility. The mail arrives with unimaginable dispatch -letters are never delayed or go astray. Furthermore, some letters are so brief as to become dialogue (which is, of course, the point). A character asks a question, then, post-haste, comes the answer, followed by the next question.
For all one's reservations about the chain-letter aspect of the evening, something dramatic occurs. The two characters connect. As one actor reads, the other reacts, communicating fathoms beneath the words, especially so in the case of Ms. Channing, who gives her character surprising richness. When Mr. Rubinstein reads a particularly self-serving account of his academic accomplishments, her face moves from bemusement to boredom to chagrin. She can scarcely wait for the letter to end so that she can offer her criticism of his literary style and of his lack of self-knowledge.
Similarly, as Ms. Channing describes her casual romantic alliances, one can see in Mr. Rubinstein's expressions his disapproval along with his curiosity. As opposites, each provides the other with what is needed. The irony is that they do not understand this until late in life. These are, in fact, star-crossed love letters. The play concludes on a poignant note, as we realize that the letters - the root of their lifelong relationship - are actually the instrument that keeps them apart.