An enduring, complicated love story is playing out on the main stage at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts this week as Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw begin their national tour in A.R. Gurney’s play Love Letters.
Actually, the forever-linked costars of the 1970 movie Love Story are delivering something more than Gurney’s 1988 play, though they certainly take the audience on the 90-minute journey through the 50-year relationship of blue bloods Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner.
Countless actors have performed Gurney’s epistolary play over the past 27 years. Stars love it because, beyond the fact that it’s funny, moving and beautifully written, it requires little rehearsal and no memorization since the actors read the letters that make up the text. Still, it’s not often that performers with a history together do Love Letters, and the side-by-side presence of O’Neal and MacGraw inevitably imbues the evening with subtext: long-ago cinematic love and loss, nostalgia, the easy warmth of long-time friends.
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Love Letters is not a highly produced Broadway touring show. Even its relatively modest ticket prices reflect the fact that it’s a more elaborate version of a staged reading, albeit one directed by Tony Award winner Gregory Mosher. A ghost light burns on a stage with no set except for the warm-wood acoustic concert shell used for orchestras and recitals. Except for a long table and two chairs, and that lonely light, the stage is otherwise empty.
The actors enter holding hands, then separate and sit. They open binders with each character’s dialogue highlighted in yellow, put on reading glasses and start. Until the play ends, they don’t make eye contact. Instead, they conjure a world and two lifetimes through Gurney’s words.
The play begins when Andy and Melissa are children whose families (hers wealthier than his) move in the same privileged social circles. It ends decades later in heartbreak and tears (and with lots of audible gasps from the audience). In between, O’Neal and MacGraw bring Gurney’s rich characters to life, evolving from preppy kids to college students to adults living lives of achievement (his) and disappointment (hers).
MacGraw, an ageless beauty whose Jane Greenwood costume (pale gray sweater, white blouse, black pants) exudes understated elegance and class, has the pithier role as Melissa. Restless even as a kid, Melissa grows up to be an impulsive, talented artist who inherits a fortune from her grandmother and a love of alcohol from her mother. MacGraw plays Melissa as a passionate rebel, a woman with demons (depression, alcoholism, despair). Can Andy, her old friend, save her? She thinks so.
O’Neal’s Andrew, the forever preppy, takes his father’s admonitions about the special obligations of the privileged to heart. Except for a time of youthful defiance in the name of love, he traverses a proscribed road to greatness: Harvard law, state politics, advantageous marriage, family, successful run for the U.S. Senate. Still, old friend Melissa keeps tugging at something deep within him.
For their first time doing Love Letters in front of an audience on Tuesday, MacGraw and O’Neal delivered good if still exploratory performances that are bound to deepen as they travel the country and work on the piece together. MacGraw exudes Melissa’s passion and youthful petulance, and her later swings from joy to despair are heart-wrenching. O’Neal takes longer to settle into his character, sometimes stumbling as he works his way through long passages of dialogue. But the speech he gives in the play’s waning moments, which will make those in the audience who know the actor’s story think of the particular sorrows of his life, is deeply moving.
With their skills, their shared history and their movie-star aura, MacGraw and O’Neal take several thousand attentive people at a time on a simply delivered but emotionally engaging trip through a different era. In an age of Twitter, instant messaging and bite-sized communication, a play built on pen-to-paper love letters may seem quaint, even anachronistic. But certain truths about the heart don’t change. And neither do the chemistry and charisma of the Love Story/Love Letters stars.
If you go
What: ‘Love Letters’ by A.R. Gurney.
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, through July 26.
Information: 954-462-0222 or browardcenter.org.