Lives Limned Through Letters in Southampton

"Love Letters" at the Cultural Center
Catherine Maloney and Daniel Becker, above, alternate the roles of Melissa and Andrew with Barbara-Jo Howard and John Leonard in the Southampton Cultural Center production of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.” Dane DuPuis

It has been 30 years since A.R. Gurney’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated two-character play “Love Letters” opened Off Broadway starring Kathleen Turner and John Rubinstein. The performers’ tenure was brief, however, as the play was performed only on Sunday and Monday evenings and changed its cast every week. 

Among the actors who succeeded them during that 64-performance run were Philip Bosco, Julie Harris, William Hurt, Marsha Mason, Christopher Walken, and Holland Taylor. After it moved to Broadway, the production paired Jane Curtin and Edward Herrmann, Polly Bergen and Robert Vaughn, Elaine Stritch and Cliff Robertson, Timothy Hutton and Elizabeth McGovern — well, you get the idea.

Since then the play has seen dozens of productions and featured countless notable actors. The reason, according to Gurney: “[It} needs no theater, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines, and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance.” 

John Tillinger, who directed the Off Broadway version, added, “It’s theater down to its most simple level, the spoken word.” His vision for the production included two rules: “[The actors] must not look at each other. And they must not memorize; they must read each letter. This play is not about acting it out.”

For the few who might not already know, the play consists of two privileged characters, Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, each of whom takes turns reading letters he or she has written to the other over a period of some 50 years, starting with birthday party thank-you notes and summer camp postcards.

During a two-week run under the direction of Michael Disher at Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center that ends on Sunday afternoon, Catherine Maloney and Barbara-Jo Howard alternate the role of Melissa while John Leonard and Daniel Becker take turns as Andrew. 

Familiar with the structure of the play but never having seen it, this reviewer wondered whether a 30-year-old play, especially an epistolary one set before the advent of cellphones or the internet, would feel relevant to a contemporary audience. Moreover, how much drama could be generated by two characters reading letters while seated next to each other at a table, forbidden from looking at each other or interacting directly?

As much as any more conventional drama, “Love Letters” manages to encapsulate the momentum and details of two complicated lives and the actors — Ms. Maloney and Mr. Leonard the night I saw the play — communicated perfectly the depth, complexity, and shifting emotional terrain of their relationship. 

Their success, and the play’s, is all the more remarkable considering these words from Andrew Wood, a director and founder of the Andrew Wood Acting Studio in Los Angeles: “There’s no question that eye contact is integral to acting; connecting with your scene partner and engaging in the give-and-take of the relationship is one of the foundations of the craft and eye contact is central to that process.”

The characters’ lives initially follow trajectories typical of the upper-class culture they were born into. Both attend boarding schools, she moves on to Briarcliff College, which in the 1960s had a reputation as an exclusive college for rich young women, he to Yale, the Navy, and, eventually, Harvard Law School.

However, while she drops out of Briarcliff, embarks on a bumpy career as an artist, marries and divorces twice, loses custody of her kids, and lands in rehab several times, he works at a white-shoe law firm, becomes involved in politics, is eventually elected to the United States Senate, and enjoys a seemingly exemplary family life.

From both the content of the letters each reads and their facial expressions and body language as each listens to the other’s words, their characters emerge. She is rebellious, creative, abrasive, needy, and mercurial, while he can 

be conventional, emotionally blocked, stuffy, and clueless about the effect of his unremitting “good news” on Melissa. 

In some ways Andrew’s long letter — essentially a soliloquy — at the end of the first act, sums up why his “passion” is not the sort a passionate woman like Melissa needs: 

“In some ways I feel most alive when I’m holed up in some corner writing things down. . . . I love writing my parents because then I become the ideal son. I love writing essays in English because then I am for a short while a true scholar. I love writing letters to the newspaper, notes to my friends, Christmas cards, anything where I have to put down words. I love writing you. You most of all. I always have. I feel like a true lover when I’m writing you.”

While for many years they are like ships passing, each unavailable when the other wants to meet, they do eventually have an affair while he is a senator, but he breaks it off for fear of its revelation derailing his political career. (The play premiered a year after the foundering of the Colorado senator Gary Hart’s presidential aspirations on the rocks of infidelity.)

Ms. Maloney’s seamless and moving performance conveys the complex emotional trajectory of her character. Andrew’s naïve and often oblivious nature doesn’t allow for much in the way of pyrotechnics, but Mr. Leonard manages to infuse his character’s emotional underdevelopment with an innocence that engages the audience’s empathy. 

Potential viewers should know that, despite Gurney’s “no memorization” edict, Mr. Disher stressed that familiarity with the script was essential to the success of the actors’ performances, and their preparation and hard work show onstage.

“Love Letters” will be performed tomorrow and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25, $12 for students under 21, and packages including brunch or dinner are available.