A Lifetime Of Letters

Correspondence is the basis for A.R. Gurney's two-person play. THEATER: REVIEW

Love Letters Play by A.R. Gurney. Directed by John Tillinger. At the Edison Theatre. AMONG the season's offbeat pleasures have been the performances of ``Love Letters.'' A play delivered as a reading, the two-person A.R. Gurney comedy requires a particular kind of performance and a particular kind of attention on the spectator's part. However, this poignantly amusing piecemeal exchange becomes thoroughly absorbing as Mr. Gurney recounts the ups and downs of a lifelong relationship exclusively in terms of the correspondence it produced.

According to a Playbill note, Mr. Gurney discovered the possibilities of this epistolary presentation when he and actress Holland Taylor read the then-unfinished script ``in lieu of a speech Gurney was to deliver at the New York Public Library.'' After a six-week run at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, the play was first performed here last Feb. 13 by John Rubinstein and Kathleen Turner. Since then, more than 25 pairs of actors have read through the Gurney correspondence file.

``Love Letters'' begins when Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and family friend Melissa Gardner start exchanging notes as grade schoolers. The practice follows in their growing-up years, continues through adulthood, and concludes in middle age, when they reunite briefly and passionately. For most of the time, they have gone separate and very different ways. After Ivy League schools and the Navy, stodgy, straight-arrow Andy has followed the law and become a devoted family man and a successful Republican politician. He responds sympathetically but concernedly to Melissa's casual lifestyle and tries to ignore her flippancies. The child of parents who divorce, she, in her turn, experiences a bad marriage, loses custody of her children, and gradually falls apart. What might have been a career in art fizzles into dilettantism.

At the performance I attended, the correspondence was transformed into an immediate, two-way dialogue by Richard Thomas as Andy and Swoosie Kurtz as Melissa. Directed by John Tillinger, who performs the office for each cast, Mr. Thomas and Miss Kurtz explored with winning tenderness, humor, and sensitivity the shifting moods and conditions of a special relationship. Thomas was a stalwart, considerate, and conventional Andy, Kurtz an appealing, mercurial, and increasingly desperate Melissa. They made listening to ``Love Letters'' seem like reading other people's mail - without the guilt.

Delivered by the two actors seated at a center stage table, the performance proved again that histrionic effect depends as much on focused attitude as on physical movement - provided there is a substantial text to work with. And Gurney has seen to that.

``Love Letters'' is scheduled to continue indefinitely at the Edison. The current week's cast consists of Polly Bergen and Robert Vaughn, followed by Kate Nelligan and Treat Williams (Jan 9-14), Elaine Stritch and Cliff Robertson (Jan. 16-21).

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