While there’s nothing more titillating than seeing family brawls, drunken tirades, unearthed secrets, shocking surprises or feverish romance, theatrical drama doesn’t necessarily need to always incorporate these elements in order to grab attention and make an impression. These three shows are currently on the boards, each of which are leaving an indelible mark in subtle fashion.
A wise sage once observed that “You never forget your first love.” Playwright A.R. Gurney proves this proclamation in Love Letters, his 1989 Pulitzer prize-winning play which charts the lives and loves of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Brian Dennehy) and his childhood crush, Melissa Gardner (Mia Farrow). Comprised only of a desk with two chairs, the duo sit and read letters they have written to one another over a fifty year period. Each of them take completely different paths and yet continue their faithful correspondence through boarding school, political campaigns, stints in rehab, nervous breakdowns, and multiple marriages.
The piece could easily sink into saccharine ground, but Gurney’s writing is so tender and gentle that its’ universal appeal will connect with anyone who has ever longed for a lost love or wondered what might have been if Cupid’s arrow had been more targeted. Gurney fully grasps the complexities of human interaction with his observation that there is not just one true love–some leave an indelible mark on our on lives that can only be expressed through time and written conversation. In an age where texts and e-mails fade into the crowd of daily routine, there is an enchanted quality which exists in the dying art of letter writing.
I had first seen Gurney’s play in 1994 at Allenberry Playhouse in Pennsylvania when the roles of Ladd and Gardner were played by Marty Ingels and his Academy Award winning wife, Shirley Jones (respectively). As a naive teenager, I knew nothing about the gains or losses of love. Now, through the lens of adulthood, the play resonates on a much different level. Full disclosure: my eyes were not completely dry when I left this Broadway theater. As I glanced around at others making their way towards the exit, I noticed that I was not alone. Obviously the script still tugs at the heart, some 25 plus years after it debuted.
Producers are hoping that this modest show will attract the baby boom generation and those wanting to huddle in the same room with a line-up of Hollywood heavy hitters. Following Mia Farrow (who ends her run on Oct. 10th), Carol Burnett, Candice Bergen, Diana Rigg, and Angelica Huston will assume the role of Melissa Gardner. Brian Dennehy will stay past Oct. 10th and continue in the role of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III. Then Alan Alda, Stacy Keach, and Martin Sheen will take turns sitting at the desk to recount the sweet journey between soul mates. Given this array of talent , you can rest assured that each performer will infuse his or her own flavor and turn Gurney’s words into a rhapsody of romance.
Love Letters plays on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson theater, 256 W. 47th (between Broadway and 8th ave.) Tickets available at the box office or by visiting: http://lovelettersbroadway.com/. Visit the site for the guest star schedule.
A Walk In the Woods
Another Pulitzer nominated play, A Walk In the Woods opened one year before Love Letters in 1988 . It starring Robert Prosky and Sam Waterston as
polar opposite negotiators who convene in Geneva, Switzerland for a peace summit. Determined to find common ground and gain understanding, the two take a literal walk to seek a greater human connection than can be achieved by hours of sitting around tables.
A new version of Lee Blessing’s thoughtful two-character drama recently landed off-Broadway at Theatre Row, where it is enjoying a new make-over under Jonathan Silverstein’s deft direction. In the original Broadway staging, Prosky starred as Russian diplomat Andrey Botvinnik and Waterston portrayed the American counterpart John Honeyman. Here, our Russian lead is female and is portrayed with exceptional perceptiveness by the accomplished Kathleen Chalfant. An equally sharp Paul Niebanck masterfully holds his own as John Honeyman.
When the play first premiered, Reagan’s presidency had ended and talks of Cold War discussions with Gorbachev had topped International headlines. While these are merely footnotes in recent history, the potency of Blessing’s work still echoes. Under the surface, after all of the missile talks, number of arms, power struggles, and economics, there is a vulnerable humanity that exists across all nations and languages. One only need to scan a newspaper to realize that our accomplishment on that front is far from fully realized.
Blessing chose to change the gender of his Russian character by stating that “the gender change can wake us up a bit more to a play that discusses issues that haven’t been on the front burner (in quite this way at least) for decades. It reminds us that more and more women are finding their way into our society’s biggest socio-political discussions, and that they have already proved themselves every bit as competent as their male counterparts.” With Chalfant in the role, her competency is not only proved, but should be preserved as a lesson for all current and aspiring actors. There remains not a single ounce of artifice in her performance.
Keen Company is exemplifying its’ mission to create theater that provokes emotional connection. With Niebanck and Chalfant, this is one conversation on which you’ll want to eavesdrop.
A Walk in The Woods plays through Oct. 18th at off Broadway’s Theatre Row. 410 West 42nd (between 9th and 10th). For tickets and more information, visit the box office or keencompany.org.
There is a new cure on the market for sleep deprivation. Unfortunately it is not covered under any insurance plan and it costs around $70. It goes by the name of Port Authority and is dispensed nightly around Union Square. This latest version of celebrated writer Conor McPherson’s 2001 work is receiving a new treatment from the Irish Repertory Theater, and you’re probably going to want a pillow for it.
Under Ciaran O’Reilly’s direction, Mcpherson’s 90 minute snoozer leaves a different type of mark from the others mentioned above; one so solemn that it plays like a funeral dirge. This piece involves three Irishmen, each at different phases of their lives. James Russell is Kevin, a young lad who speaks about the quagmires of falling in love. Billy Carter portrays Dermot, a middle-aged man who finds life too much to handle, and Peter Maloney is Joe, a senior citizen who resides in a care facility and speaks about his now deceased wife. The three men sit on a rather stark stage and each of them take turns delivering lengthy monologues, all of which are nearly as interesting as asking a five-year old to explain quantum physics. Carter’s Dermot is the only riveting performance and even then, you’ll likely find your mind wandering into the near realm of REM sleep.
Forty minutes into this particular performance, a lady in the front row got up and left. Moments later, a scratching sound behind me prompted me to turn my head where I witnessed another obviously disengaged theatergoer filing her nails. When the curtain fell, my guest for the evening turned to me and said, “I think I would have enjoyed that so much more on a sofa, covered in a blanket.” In Irish brogue, ya can draw yer own conclusions, lads and lassies.
Port Authority plays off Broadway through November 16th at The DR2 Theatre. 103 East 15th Street (between Park and 3rd ave.) For tickets and information, visit http://www.irishrep.org/