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‘Love Letters,’ Having Written a Record, Closes : Stage: After 565 performances, A. R. Gurney’s play closes in Beverly Hills. There were turn-away crowds for the final shows, which paired Whoopi Goldberg and Timothy Dalton.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The love letters exchanged between Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, from when Melissa walked into second grade looking like a “lost princess” and for 50 years after, were read in Beverly Hills for the 565th and last time Sunday night at the Canon Theatre.

A. R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” a tribute to communication of the heart committed to paper, had a remarkable 16-month run in Los Angeles. Producers hoping for six weeks without losing too much money found a sensation on their hands, with scores of actors offering to play the roles of Melissa and Andrew and crowds filling the 382-seat theater week after week.

In all, 128 actors and actresses appeared in the play at the Canon. The play relied on Hollywood movie and TV stars, and theatergoers had chances to see plenty of them over the run. Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara performed the play three times. Delta Burke appeared opposite real-life husband Gerald McRaney, and Linda (The Beauty) Hamilton performed with on-screen spiritual lover Ron (The Beast) Perlman. Tom Skerritt shared the stage with the late Lee Remick, and Charlton Heston shared it with three different actresses: Jean Simmons, Alexis Smith and Stephanie Beecham.

Younger Hollywood was also well represented: Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy; Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt.

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The play ran at the Pasadena Playhouse before moving to the Canon in April, 1990. It has been presented both on and off Broadway, in dozens of U.S. and foreign cities. San Francisco supported it for 42 weeks, London barely at all. Its most enthusiastic reception by far has been in Los Angeles.

Timothy Dalton and Whoopi Goldberg played the lifelong friends and sometime lovers for the final four shows, including Sunday night’s closing when they were greeted with whoops and howls and extended applause from the audience.

Their performances sold out within a day and a half of being announced, said director Ted Weiant. A waiting list spanned 12 pages, and about 50 people were turned away from the theater Sunday night.

“We were so embraced by the Los Angeles community, and we really wanted to end the run as it opened and as it was maintained: very high-profile, with first-class talent, in a blaze of glory,” said co-producer Joan Stein.

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Said Goldberg at a press conference Sunday afternoon, “We are happy to be a blaze.”

During the performance, Goldberg sat primly with her legs crossed, a charming incongruity with Melissa’s mischievous, sometimes lusty, sometimes wistful letters. Dalton read Andrew’s letters in a patrician prep-school voice. He squirmed a bit in his chair at the desk he shared with Goldberg--the only furniture on stage--sometimes propping his chin in his hand, once pounding the three-ring binder holding the letters in disgust over Melissa’s antics at a pool party.

Dalton and Goldberg were the 65th couple at the Canon and the first interracial one to fill the roles, a weekly casting turnaround possible because the play consists of actors reading letters aloud and can be performed after two rehearsals.

Gurney called the casting of Goldberg and Dalton “unusual"--when writing the play about two WASPs he never imagined multiethnic actors--but said he was pleased with the choice. This company, co-produced by Susan Dietz, was the first to present the play with black couples as well.

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“This is a play that spans any kind of racial or ethnic lines,” said Stein. “These are two excellent actors. This play is colorblind. I’m not making a statement as much as allowing the play to breathe in an expanded environment.”

Said Weiant: “To have Whoopi and Timothy, I think it opens up a whole wonderful new question and sends it out there. I think it’s an amazing way to end.”

In a previous performance by two African-American actors, two slight changes were made. The Dalton-Goldberg team used one of those changes--substituting “old farts” for “old WASPs"--but left the other the same. Goldberg’s character wrote wistfully to her friend, who was in love with a Japanese woman, “Most American men have to get involved with a dark-skinned woman before they can connect with the blond goddesses they really love.” Goldberg delivered the line deadpan; the audience roared.

The play finally closed because ticket sales had started to slow, said Weiant.

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“I think the play had finally run its course in this town,” Weiant said. “We’re overjoyed because when we first started, we thought we’d get six to eight weeks out of it. So it’s a gift.”

Said Stein, who is married to Weiant, “Anywhere in the world, a 16-month run is extraordinary. In L.A., it’s a miracle. I am deeply grateful for it.”

The play yielded a 50% profit, according to Stein. Only 1 of 80 plays ever returns a profit, Weiant estimated.

Said Gurney in a telephone interview from his home in New York last week: “I’m absolutely delighted. Los Angeles is famous for not being that hospitable to plays that have been successful elsewhere because it’s primarily a movie and TV town.”

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Actors and producers attributed the play’s success to its accessible themes: first love, unrequited love, divorce, terrible timing, friendship and trust. “There are great universal themes in this piece. People relate to that and savor it,” Stein said.

Said Dalton, “It touches everybody. It deals with the entirety of people’s lives. It’s ultimately rather sad and moving.”

The novelty of the casting undoubtedly was a big draw. “I think it’s wonderful because it’s bringing people to the theater,” Weiant said.

Said Gurney: “I admire the guts of some of these actors, who in many cases had large reputations at stake, who--it’s like sky-diving--jumped off the edge of the cliff.”

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While most people attended to see a favorite star, Weiant said, audiences were drawn in as if it were a radio play because they needed to imagine.

In addition, each new pair brought different flavors to the same words. “I wish Gurney had been able to see all of them,” Weiant said. “It is such a tribute to his work and writing to see all the different twists and turns.”

Gurney recently finished a first draft of the screenplay for Columbia Pictures. The play will tour the country this fall, he said, and will play in France, Japan, Germany and Italy. “It should have a life elsewhere, even though it’s closing in L.A.,” he said.


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