To Syrup with Love

"This is a play, or rather a sort of a play," A.R. Gurney wrote in an author's note to his 1988 epistolary Love Letters, "which 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." A sentimental crowd-pleaser about a relationship spanning from a grammar-school birthday party to a middle-aged death, it "is designed simply to be read aloud by an actor and an actress of roughly the same age, sitting side by side at a table, in front of a group of people of any size."
The easy, attractive Love Letters well-nigh guarantees Fat City for Gurney -- author of sophisticated WASP comedies including The Cocktail Hour and The Dining Room -- because, excepting permission fees, it costs virtually nothing to produce. It has two broadly conceived and entertainingly diametric characters, whom we see grow, solely through their letters, from lively children to experienced fiftysomethings. It is a wry and poignant -- if comfortable and divinable -- romance that takes absolutely no chances: it's the can't-miss type of laughter-and-tears play community theaters mount, maybe with a local celeb or two, around Valentine's Day or in June. Following its own calendar, The Actors Workshop is finishing a breezy May run starring Karen Douglas, the company's founder, and Marty Ambrose, the morning-traffic radio reporter.

Though unambitious, the play achieves a certain familiar success in Act One, where Gurney describes the prepubescence and adolescence of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner. At summer camp, Andy thinks it'd be great to get a letter from a girl. Melissa, mailing a drawing in which they're not wearing any clothes, wonders if he can guess who is who. They confide, flirt, fight, pout, go steady, break up, stay the friends they always were. He becomes a somewhat stuffy young man desiring to do good; she, a somewhat eccentric would-be artiste desiring not to be sad.

In the underdeveloped Act Two, the letters come less often and span more years, as Andy and Melissa marry others, pursue careers, experience losses, seek gains. Gurney mostly limits their exchanges to Christmases and birthdays, and while this tactic might be realistic vis-a-vis adults' time constraints, it doesn't do much for enhancing the characters. Andy, a conservative Ivy League lawyer-turned-lawmaker, is as stock as Melissa, who's a self-described "boozed-out, cynical, lascivious old broad." The roads they take, the momentary fork where they meet, and the place they end up are much-traveled theatrical terrain. We only glance at the signposts of alcoholism, infidelity, depression and midlife crises as Gurney speeds along the well-worn way toward a weepy eulogy.

Given the play's tendency to sweep surfaces, what it takes for Love Letters to flourish are vibrant performances -- which Douglas and Ambrose give -- and nuanced ones -- which they don't. Douglas' interpretation of young Melissa as a sort of Becky Thatcher is intriguing but doesn't do justice to Melissa's numerous girlish tendencies, "hot-box" yearnings or more delicate moments, such as when she reveals that one of her stepfathers "used to bother me in bed." As a battling adult, Douglas is convincing when setting the bombastic politician straight, but her deadpan delivery on artistic failures, family troubles and nervous breakdowns belies Melissa's

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debilitating struggles. While genial Ambrose shines when reading a self-absorbed account of high school exploits and kitschy Christmas greetings mass-circulated to his constituents, the character, in his formative years and in maturity, is much more than Ambrose's cherub who pouts when things don't go his way and shrugs and acts smug when they do. The actor brings too much of his day job to the role.

Melissa often chastises Andy for not writing about his feelings. Similar criticism applies to The Actors Workshop's director-less production, one in which the actors' voices don't deepen with age even though the characters' psyches do. A director could have steered the actors away from agreeableness, while accenting the tensions that arise when teenage Melissa wants to be "just friends," or when her middle-aged lonelyhearts pines, "Sometimes I think if you and I had just... if we had just...." But without a sobering force, little accrues. Granted, performances depending solely on timbres and faces are tough to pull off -- all the more need for a director's manipulations, which might have made Gurney's diaphanous text tender and nostalgic instead of social and verging on the inconsequential.

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