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'Letters': What's Not to Love? POSTPONED

Mon, 02/05/2024 - 13:34
Matthew O'Connor and Bonnie Grice took a break during a rehearsal for "Love Letters."
Mark Segal

Due to a cast emergency, the performances of "Love Letters" set for this weekend have been postponed until March 1 to 3. Tickets previously purchased will be honored that weekend. For more information about transferring tickets, email the Southampton Cultural Center.

"Love Letters," A.R. Gurney's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, has been performed countless times by notable actors, but busy ones, for the reason that neither memorization nor long-term commitment is necessary: They sit side by side at tables and simply read from notes, letters, and cards.

As Bonnie Grice, the founding director of Boots on the Ground Theater, said, "They've done it many times out here. Hampton Theatre Company has done it, Michael Disher has done it at the Southampton Cultural Center, but no one is doing it this year. It's February. What's not to love?"

So Ms. Grice has picked up the gauntlet and is bringing the play to the cultural center this weekend for three pre-Valentine's Day performances, starting Friday evening at 7. 

The story follows two childhood friends, Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, who, over a period of 50 years, have exchanged notes, cards, and letters about boarding schools, marriage, children, divorce, and missed opportunities. Ms. Grice will play Melissa, and Matthew O'Connor the strait-laced Andrew.

The play premiered Off Broadway in 1989 with Kathleen Turner and John Rubinstein, and opened later that year on Broadway with Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards. The Off Broadway production was directed by John Tillinger, thus breaking one of the playwright's rules. Ms. Grice read some of those prescriptions: no curtain, no director, no changing of costumes, no baby talk -- the list goes on. She did admit that Andrew Botsford, an actor, director, and Hampton Theatre Company board member, "came and coached us a little bit. Andrew has done 'Love Letters' something like 20 times."

Asked if "Letters" presented challenges different from more conventional plays, she said, "Andrew told us to make sure it's not conversational. You're writing letters. And that's very difficult. You maintain the energy, but you're writing letters."

"You read it as you're writing it," said Mr. O'Connor, "so each of mine begins 'Dear Melissa . . .' "

"Another challenge is that you have to sit, and you can't look at each other," said Ms. Grice. "The recipient can't publicize his or her reactions to the letters, there's no mugging or making faces."

While one character reads, the other looks straight ahead. Whenever there's a break in the text that indicates the passage of time, both actors look at the audience.

Mr. O'Connor noted that letter-writing has become a lost art. "As my character says, 'Letters are such a deeply personal way to convey your feelings.' I believe in that. Even if it's a holiday card of the kids and a dog."

"I hate those!" countered Ms. Grice. "I'm like Melissa. When Andrew sends out a page of what's happening, he reads the whole thing. Melissa writes back and says, 'Dear Andy, Never send this kind of letter to me again!' "

While neither actor has done "Love Letters" before, they have acted together twice, both times at the cultural center. The first was in "Sex: What's She Really Thinking," a sketch comedy by Michael Disher and Irene Beckerman; the second in "Come Blow Your Horn."

Mr. O'Connor, whose acting credits include Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman" and "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," lives in Hampton Bays. When not performing, he works as a dispatcher for the East Hampton Village Police Department.

After 30 years working full time in radio, Ms. Grice now has an 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. slot on Sag Harbor's WLNG. "Three hours a day, boom, I'm done. I play any music I want and I do interviews here and there." She founded Boots on the Ground in 2016 and has been doing plays at the cultural center since staging "The Miracle Worker" there in 2018.

Looking ahead, the company's next production, set for October, is Terrence McNally's "It's Only a Play." Ms. Grice is a good friend of Tom Kirdahy, Mr. McNally's widower. "Tom will help us bring the play to life and probably do a question-and-answer discussion about Terrence."

In addition to Friday's performance, "Love Letters" will be performed Saturday at 7 and Sunday at 3. Tickets are $25, $15 for students under 21.

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