You could counterfeit money, risking jail time, or you could cast the stars of one of the most profitable romances in movie history and hit the road with a perennially popular stage show.
The national tour of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” which launched this week at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, tells you which option producers chose. Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, who broke everybody’s heart as Oliver and Jenny in the movie “Love Story” 45 years ago, play the star-crossed epistolary confidantes in Gurney’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play.
First performed in 1988, “Love Letters” has become a staple of the regional theater. It’s good business, with its minimal production costs: A cast of two reads from scripts. It’s also a deftly woven portrait of two distinctive and endearing characters whose correspondence sustains them through half a century of personal and cultural change. Their love unspools as a series of missed opportunities and failed hopes; deprived of a happily-ever-after, like the figures on Keats’ Grecian Urn, they remain tantalizingly fixed in mutual pursuit. It’s a major tearjerker.
Directed by Gregory Mosher, this production is a version of one he directed on Broadway last year with a rotating cast of big names: Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy, Dennehy and Carol Burnett, Candice Bergen and Alan Alda. The production was well reviewed, but sluggish ticket sales caused it to close early, before two of the promised casts, Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg, and Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen, had performed. It was then retooled as a touring production with O’Neal and MacGraw. Are they the winning combo?
The pump has certainly been primed: The actors’ star-making chemistry in “Love Story” is still so potent that certain sappy people who will not be specified (OK, me) can be moved to sobs by just the opening notes of the movie’s theme song.
One of the best moments of “Love Letters” at the Wallis is the first, when, as the lights dim, the stage door opens and MacGraw and O’Neal walk out, hand in hand. What a handsome couple they make. She has allowed her hair to turn white and wears it pulled back. He has gotten a little puffier but has maintained his sandy, tousled curls. They sport conservative clothing, as if on their way to a political fundraiser, and the burnished wood-paneled walls of the Wallis’ Bram Goldsmith Theater evoke the tasteful mansion where this fundraiser might be held.
For some of us (or at least one), it’s the long-awaited fulfillment of a deeply felt dream: That Jenny didn’t die after all. That she and Oliver lived happily ever after.
This exhilaration fades a little as O’Neal and MacGraw take their seats at a table and, without looking at each other, begin reading their characters’ letters. They look a lot smaller on this enormous, mostly empty stage than they did on screen, and the play feels, initially, small as well. Both actors read a little haltingly, sometimes emphasizing the wrong syllable and then backtracking, as though the material is new to them. It’s not; they performed the play together in a preview in Florida this summer. But it is written in a quaint American English, noticeably stiffer than the way we speak today, with unfamiliar slang, like “hacking around” instead of “goofing off.”
Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, or Andy, and Melissa Gardner, the blue-blooded children of two high-society families, begin corresponding in 1937, when they’re in second grade, after Andy attends Melissa’s birthday party. Melissa -- blunt, acerbic, iconoclastic and flirty (uncannily like Jenny in “Love Story”) -- isn’t particularly fond of letter-writing. But Andy, who likes to follow the rules, finds in writing a freedom he can’t experience anywhere else.
In fits and starts, they keep the correspondence going. They get shipped off to different boarding schools, attend college, fall in love (sniff!) with other people, marry and divorce and have children and struggle with addictions. Andy does everything by the book and winds up a senator; Melissa strays from the beaten path, trying to be an artist. Their connection deepens across the years even as life keeps them apart.
If a play in letters sounds dull and wordy, it isn’t here, because Gurney pushes at the restrictions of the format. People of my generation tend to rue the lost art of letter-writing in the digital age, but Andy and Melissa’s letters behave a lot like emails or text messages. They’re read without salutations, and many are only a word or two long, permitting the punchy exchanges that the U.S. mail doesn’t generally facilitate. (When Melissa remarks that she likes Republicans but finds Democrats better in bed, Andy replies, “Well, I’m a liberal Republican.”) And apparently, in this universe, letters can be written posthumously.
We are given to understand that Andy and Melissa meet in person and talk on the phone, but their deepest bond is in these letters. Both actors’ performances strengthen as the characters age and their relationship is tinged with nostalgia and regret. O’Neal delivers his final monologue, particularly, with a powerful depth of feeling.
And though their kiss at the curtain call is a little indulgent, it also feels like a cultural event, a moment of closure 45 years in the making.
“Love Letters,” Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Bram Goldsmith Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 25. $29-$110. (310) 746-4000 or www.thewallis.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.