Theater Review: Love Letters

MacGraw and O’Neal Back 2-Gether Again: The Love That Dares To Say Its Name

To paraphrase Oliver Barrett IV’s opening musings in Love Story: “What can you say about a couple that co-starred in a hit movie forty-five years ago?  That they were beautiful and brilliant?  That they loved McQueen, Farrah and Tatum?”

Of course, the big draw to Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal’s star turn in A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters is the canny casting that reunites the two leads in 1970’s beloved blockbuster Love Story.  Like Melissa Gardner and Andrew Ladd III, the characters they play in Love Letters forty-five years after Love Story, MacGraw and O’Neal, of course are much older now than when they played Jenny and Oliver in the popular screen romance written by Erich Segal, directed by Arthur Hiller.  But they are still looking for l’amour.

In addition to the clever pairing of Love Story’s ill fated lovers, Love Letters has an interesting theatrical device or contrivance that I don’t remember seeing onstage before.  MacGraw and O’Neal sit side by side in chairs behind a table and read letters aloud from their lengthy correspondence that began in childhood and continued on to their adulthood, perhaps into their sixties.  They do not, per se, read their letters to each other but rather to the audience, which was packed at the Oct. 14 premiere at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.  There have been other works dealing with correspondence – Cyrano de Bergerac and 84 Charing Cross Road come to mind – but Gurney’s dramatic conceit seems unique, if simple.

Usually, this posh Beverly Hills venue’s plays have killer, elaborate sets but Peter Kaczorowski’s is spare – positively Jerzy Grotowski-like in its return towards a poor theater.  This puts the spotlight more on the actors in this two-hander.  The 90 minute or so one-acter directed by Gregory Mosher actually requires skillful acting as the thespians strive to fill their missives with emotions, yearnings, delight, info about their lives mostly lived separately.  MacGraw and O’Neal have to rely on their vocalizing and facial expressions (sans the benefit of close-ups in the 500 seat theater), as opposed to movements.  This may be a nod to the age of the co-stars, who are now both in their seventies.  (At the reception following the premiere O’Neal used a cane.)

So how do MacGraw and O’Neal do?  They reached their stride after minor technical problems with the sound were resolved about a third or so of the way into the production.  Both were good, with O’Neal being the more emotive of the two, as Melissa meets a Jenny-like fate.  While both were Oscar-nominated for Love Story – as was the blockbuster for Best Picture, Hiller for Best Directing and Segal for screenwriting – truth be told, neither Ali or Ryan, best remembered for this colossal 1970 hit and their good looks, were ever great artists.

MacGraw, who was born in 1939, has actually appeared in few films, with her last screen role being in a movie this film historian actually never heard of: 1997’s Glam.  O’Neal actually had a much fuller career and showed comic flair, starring in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 What’s Up, Doc? opposite Barbra Streisand and 1973’s Paper Moon with daughter Tatum (who became the youngest Oscar winner ever in a competitive category), as well as in Stanley Kubrick’s optically opulent Barry Lyndon in 1975.

Gurney’s script has insights into the literary creative process in general and in particular into what is fast becoming a lost art form: Letter writing. In this social media day and age of emailing, Tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming, ad nauseam, the simple, fine art of corresponding is disappearing.  Both characters, especially Andy, muse on why and how they correspond and this is quite refreshing, as they express and expose their inner feelings to their longtime loved ones without an emojicon in sight!

While life can get hectic with lots of diversions, what I didn’t buy in Love Letters is the notion that people who were “meant for each other” somehow don’t manage to get together (until it is too late).  If people with means want to meet in person and pursue a relationship, barring manmade and/or natural disasters such as wars and earthquakes, they will prioritize being together and do so.  Especially if this lingers on over the decades.

Also, Melissa and Andy are unfortunately not ordinary people but from the upper crust.  And they both pursue careers that are off the beaten path that common folks are less likely to be able to relate to.  In particular, as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III O’Neal plays a patrician preppy in the mold of Love Story’s Oliver Barrett IV. Part of Love Story’s emotive power is that if romances require obstacles to be overcome in order to consummate the relationship, then the initial hurdle in the 1970 movie was class, as Oliver was from the bourgeoisie, while Jenny had a plebian background.  But that element of class struggle is missing in Love Letters.

(Fun Fact of the review: It has been theorized that Al Gore and Tipper were the role models for Ollie and Jenny. Onscreen, in his first film role, Tommy Lee Jones played Hank, Oliver’s roommate at their Ivy League college – in real life, Jones was Al Gore’s Harvard roommate.)

Nevertheless, fans of MacGraw and O’Neal are likely to enjoy this blast from the past.  At the reception, MacGraw seemed ebullient and in high spirits as she socialized and cavorted with friends, admirers and the crowd in general.  MacGraw and O’Neal still look good and seem to have a genuine, abiding affection for one another.  91-year-old Arthur Hiller, helmer of Love Story, was there – although I didn’t spy him passing directorial notes on to his former actors.  But awash in nostalgia, their aging fans, thrilled to see MacGraw and O’Neal back two-gether and in action, were writing these iconic romantic co-stars cerebral love letters of their own.

Love Letters is being performed Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. through Oct. 25 in the Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. For info: (310) 246-3800; for tickets (310) 746.4000;


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