"Love Letters" -- Music Theatre of Connecticut, Westport

 

--Irene Backalenick

No lines to be memorized. No moving about the stage. No costumes, stage sets, lighting effects. No falling chandeliers. No razzle-dazzle. Yet “Love Letters” is first-class theater, thanks to the skills and perceptions of playwright A. R. Gurney—and to the professional productions it has engendered.

Gurney’s hardy perennial, is once more on stage—this time at the Music Theatre of Connecticut in Westport (skillfully directed by Kevin Connor, executive artistic director of MTC). In the competent hands of Jodi Stevens and Scott Bryce (a husband/wife team), the piece offers up its joys and sorrows. (A bit of local color adds special interest to this production. Bryce is a home-town boy, having grown up in Westport, and Gurney is a Connecticut playwright.)

In all his plays, Gurney creates an upper-class WASP world (presumably drawing on his own background) with its private schools, country clubs, cocktail parties, and considerable angst. He turns his sharp eye on this world, approaching it with a mix of satire, forgiveness and affection. The difference with “Love Letters” is that actors need not learn their lines, though they certainly must learn their characters. Consequently many teams have joyously taken on the popular project over the years. Audiences forgive this “reading,” because it is indeed more than a reading.

Bryce and Stevens’ version seems rather ponderous initially, but grows in effectiveness over the evening. The two sit at adjoining desks, scripts before them, reading a series of letters the characters have sent to each other over a lifetime.

“Love Letters” begins with their childhood notes. The two attend the same school, the same dancing classes, the same birthday parties, gradually sharing more and more (written) intimacies. As they grow up, swim through schools, colleges, marriages, divorces, successes, disasters, they continue their lifetime correspondence. Their few attempts at direct contact never quite work out.

The personality differences are startling: he accepts the establishment, where she rebels. His steadiness contrasts with her ditziness, his stuffiness with her creativity. But the attraction of opposites, the mysterious need for each other, is always there. As the bittersweet tale ends, the actors have truly inhabited the two characters, brought them vividly to life, and enraptured the viewers.

Ultimately, the Bryce/Stevens team has us in tears (as is Bryce himself) as this bittersweet story ends. There is nothing like a good cry, when it is teamed with a charming, endearing love story, a series of love letters.

This review also appears in the Ct Post and nytheaterscene.com


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