‘Love Letters’ Is a Nostalgia Trip at the Wallis

By Maureen Lee Lenker

Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal. Photo by Austin Hargrave.

Before Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in “The Fault in Our Stars” (2014); before Mandy Moore and Shane West in “A Walk to Remember” (2002); there was Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in “Love Story” (1970). Young soul-mates torn apart by cancer is a storytelling trope that seems to recycle itself with a new set of lovers for each generation, but “Love Story” remains the gold standard. From its iconic, Oscar winning score to its tagline “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” the film is indelibly imprinted in the minds of hopeless romantics the world over.

So, it’s a welcome treat to find the pair that played the memorable Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal) and Jennifer Cavalieri (Ali MacGraw) returning to familiar patterns forty-five years later as the authors of the titular “Love Letters.The show is now at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the first stop on a special theatrical tour.

“Love Letters” is simple in its set-up — two actors sit side-by-side reading through nearly fifty years of their characters’ correspondence to each other. The letters they read aloud tell the story of a boy and a girl who meet as children and the ups and downs of their love story over fifty years. There is no set, no real staging, and they read from a notebook, so actors need not even memorize their lines. This minimalist approach (and demand for rehearsal from actors) made it simple for pairs such as Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow and Alan Alda and Candice Bergen to cycle through the production from week to week in its most recent Broadway run.

Yet, though A.R. Gurney’s Pulitzer nominated play has proved a steady vehicle for rotating glamorous duos since its debut in 1988, it feels as if it was written specifically for MacGraw and O’Neal. The roles of Melissa Gardner (Ali MacGraw) and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Ryan O’Neal) feel lived in—as if MacGraw and O’Neal are returning to their childhood home or an old friend (indeed, performing with each other, they are doing just that).

The parallels between their characters in “Love Letters” and their breakout roles are pointed and will produce a rush of nostalgia in any “Love Story” fan. Issues of social class and propriety keep both sets of lovers apart; “Love Letters’” Melissa and Andrew attend Briarcliffe and Yale respectively, while “Love Story’s” Jennifer and Oliver attended Radcliffe and Yale. She complains he’s too upright and preppy; he is rebuffed by her flippant air and inability to let people in. It continues from there, but to elaborate would spoil too much. Still, for even the casual “Love Story” fan, this pairing will leave you tingling at the touching reunion of two such stalwart talents. Their history lends an extra layer to the bittersweet ebb and flow of a relationship that reflects love in all its missed chances, regrets, ebullient triumphs, and heartbreaking failures.

Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal. Photo by Austin Hargrave.

Their history aside, MacGraw and O’Neal are excellent actors in their own right. MacGraw is radiant from start to finish, whether she’s reading the childish musings of an elementary school child or the desperate pleas of a middle-aged woman in rehab. You feel her giddy hope, her petulant teasing, and her raw pain as she zigzags between these extremes. Her deep affection for O’Neal and her character shine through in every line of correspondence. O’Neal is a bit shakier — flubbing a few lines and tripping over words here and there, but his emotional connection to the role renders that a minor complaint. He’s tender and patient to a fault, and he infuses so many sections with heartfelt pathos that he leaves the audience in tears.

The play has much to say about the nature of love, and the way that lovers communicate (or fail to). Andrew is an avid letter writer, while Melissa prefers the phone. The push and pull between their preferred methods of communication and the personal and intimate nature of letter-writing is one of the primary themes of the play — second only to its examination of how the foibles of human nature can cause lovers to routinely narrowly miss each other, even if they’re meant for each other. Andrew romantically describes a letter as something permanent — “it’s not a telephone call that’s dead as soon as it’s over.” And it is this permanence that allows the action of the play to take place; one could write a play that was entirely a series of phone calls between two lovers, but it seems to lack the personal intimacy that comes with the stream of consciousness of writing a letter. It is the less ephemeral nature of a letter that makes the play’s exchange possible.

Because there is no set, no costume changes, and the lighting remains the same throughout the production, not much can be said about the production’s design. It is not distracting, but simply lends a warm and inviting air to the proceedings. The show is dependent upon the writing and how the director and two actors interpret the words. A.R. Gurney has written a beautiful meditation on love and his words are in deft hands under the direction of Gregory Mosher. O’Neal and MacGraw have been absent from acting (with a few sparse roles) of late, yet Mosher gets exceedingly fine performances from both his stars.

It’s a special event to see these two together live — one of those rare moments where an audience member can treasure the memory of seeing a duo like MacGraw and O’Neal onstage. The very act of reading love letters aloud is an exercise in nostalgia, and this production is as well. Yet, it never feels tired or out-of-time, but rather poignant, alive, and real throughout. Truths about love, life, regret, and second chances remain stalwart. Being guided through those truths by two old-friends who are permanently linked as icons of romance is a rare experience — from the second they enter the stage, the room feels as if it’s had an enchantment placed on it.

Love may mean never having to say you’re sorry, but you won’t be sorry if you see this production.

“Love Letters” is playing at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd.) through October 25th. Tickets start at $29. For more information visit: www.thewallis.org

Maureen Lee Lenker is a staff writer for Neon Tommy. Contact her at maureenlee08@gmail.com or on Twitter @maureenlee89.

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