Remarkable things are happening to A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. Actors of distinction are flocking to it as hummingbirds to nectar. Close to 60 prominent men and women, each different as a thumbprint, have played the play. In this happily diverse company: Swoosie Kurtz and Kathleen Turner, Holland Taylor and Kate Nelligan, Jason Robards and Richard Thomas, John Rubinstein and William Hurt. Other big names want in. “Tons of good people want to do it,” Linda Wright, the casting director says. “We go after them or they come to us. Film actors can do it between movies. It blew me away when I read it.”
The play’s two characters are a man and a woman who exchange letters, but not marriage vows, in a warm and complicated friendship lasting 50 years. Because they choose others as mates, and live to regret it, Love Letters has a wistful tone: beneath the sparkle expected from Gurney, sadness and remorse. “This is a play about missed opportunity,” said John Tillinger, who staged it. “They keep missing each other but they’re bound to each other. He doesn’t really realize how much she means to him until she dies.” “She was at the heart of my life,” he laments to her mother.
Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner are privileged New England WASPs. “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants invented America,” wrote Charlotte Curtis in The Times. But this once powerful population has all but vanished from New York City, except in A.R. Gurney’s plays, which wryly observe the attitudes, tribal rites and quaint customs of the WASP. Melissa is richer and a rebel; Andy, a traditionalist and a born letter writer. Putting thoughts on paper with a Parker 51 delights him: “I feel like a true lover when I’m writing you.” She prefers the telephone but writes anyway.
Gurney grew up in this world; takes one to know one. “Andy Ladd is like me in some ways and in some ways not,” he confides. “I’m not a United States Senator [which Andy becomes]. I was in the Navy, and I did go to dance class and boarding school. All three of us went away to school. We had to write our parents once a week, our grandparents once a month. Boys wrote girls all the time, it was part of the courtship ritual.”
Social grace was strongly encouraged. “When my parents gave parties we had to go downstairs and make the round and bow and call people by name and look them in the eye.”
He is a word aerialist, a high flyer in the literary big top. “Everything is carefully put,” says Swoosie Kurtz, the two-time Tony Award winner. “Every word counts, and the pauses are orchestrated. He’s written them in [designated by asterisks, one or two or three]. This play is about listening, and it’s not just two people. It’s all the people in their lives whom the audience can imagine. The audience’s imagination does so much of the work. When it’s done right you see two fully realized performances. No, I don’t write letters, I’m a child of the phone age.”
Gurney tips his hat to the players. “What they do is a testament to the actor’s art. They just have the text. It’s like hang-gliding, they jump off the cliff and they fly. You see them improvise and respond to the audience. Jason Robards told me, ‘You’ve done an interesting thing but don’t do it again.’ The older actors are reliving it, and the younger actors are more immediately involved. The play is different every time; each set of actors brings a dimension that is different.”
Couples “should appear to be of the same age,” Linda Wright says. “It’s very nice if they’ve had some sort of relationship with each other and have been on the stage.”
Swoosie Kurtz and Richard Thomas are young for the roles but marvelous really, very funny and very moving. “We were in Fifth of July together, he replaced Christopher Reeve,” she says. “We adore each other, and the chemistry in this play is very important.” Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, made for each other in the world of O’Neill, are well-matched in the play; one can believe they have lived these lives.
There’s a different pair of actors every week at the Edison. Rehearsal is brief. The setting ordained by Tillinger is sparse: a rug, a Honduran mahogany desk, two chairs, two decanters and two glasses of water. Seated side by side at the desk, scripts before them on stand, the actors read letters to the audience. Good actors, it seems, don’t have to move around, they can act sitting down, with face, eyes, voice and feet, visible below the desk.
John Tillinger instructs the actors not to look at each other and not to memorize the script. “Though they sit close together, there’s a Tristan and Isolde sword between them; it creates tension. They must immediately respond and react to the letters. They must never lose sight of the written page. An actress with a photographic memory began to recite the lines, and it didn’t work.”
This is the fifth Gurney play directed by Tillinger. “He speaks to me,” he says. “His plays may seem superficial but there’s an enormous amount of feeling in them. His people deal with difficult feelings. He has a masterful gift of language, an incredible sense of the music in language; good writers begin to sing. I tell the actors to listen to the music of the words.”
Lean, soft-spoken, jacketed and (at our meeting) tieless, Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr. was born in Buffalo and is called Pete. “My mother started it; I wrote a few plays under the name Peter Gurney. My parents and a grandmother took me to plays as a child, and I began to write plays in grammar school. Touring companies came to Buffalo. I remember Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince, which seemed magical to me.” But when he elected to write for the theatre, his father was set against it.
He works hard, a very WASP thing to do. The New York theatre had nine plays from him in the past eight years, an astonishing yield. “I’m at my desk by 8:30,” he says, “write till 1, jog after lunch and write again in the afternoon. I’m beginning to taper off a bit.”
Seated one day at a new computer, a gift from his father-in-law, he began to finger the keys and lo, lines of dialogue appeared, and Love Letters began to take shape in his mind. “I wanted to write a very simple play,” he said. It could become his biggest money maker. Given the simplicity and ease of the production, companies will sprout up across the country and abroad. A San Francisco company opened last fall.
It was preformed first at the Public Library with the author and Holland Taylor. “They asked me to give a speech but we did the play instead,” and the literati liked it. It opened at the Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, in 1988, moved last year to the Promenade Theatre in New York and then settled at the Edison.
John Rubinstein, son of the late pianist Arthur Rubinstein, has returned to the play a number of times. He was the first Andy Ladd at the Long Wharf, the Promenade, and in San Francisco. “It’s a wonderful piece of writing,” he says, “it goes very deep. It pulls the audience into the lives of these two people, and you follow them through life. What’s weird is, you pour your guts out to a woman you see for the first time when you’re leaving the stage. For two hours you’re writing a letter or reading a letter.”
His Melissas are striking and dissimilar. “I’ve played opposite Kathleen Turner, Joanna Gleason, Stockard Channing, Joan Van Ark, Jane Curtin, Katherine Kerr, and Blythe Danner. Each of them brought a different color to the Melissa role.”
Melissa and Andy begin to write each other as children in 1937, share birthday parties, valentines and dances. She scorns his obedience to his parents and his other Boy Scout tendencies. He chides her for necking in the cloakroom with a “jerk” who brags about it. “My mother says I’ll be set up for life if I marry you,” he writes. She suggests he’s impressed by “ginger ale and cookies on a silver tray.”
Pete Gurney has had long runs, full houses, but never a blockbuster. Nearly all his plays—The Dining Room, The Perfect Party, The Middle Ages, The Golden Age, Scenes from a Marriage—were produced Off-Broadway. Sweet Sue, with Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave, was his first play on Broadway. The quiet civility of his work does not please everybody. “The English are always disappointed I’m not David Mamet,” he told Sylviane Gold for Vanity Fair. “I’m old enough to know what I can’t do. I can’t play golf. I can’t write like David Mamet.”
What he can do is write fine A. R. Gurney plays, and audiences everywhere will be grateful if he continues doing that.