Sorting Out My Thoughts on A.R. Gurney with Love Letters

If you can only see the gears in my head trying to process/understand the fact that A.R. Gurney is still relevant in the NY theatre scene. Like, even in his early-hundreds eighties, Gurney is churning out new work. Say what you will (oh, I have a mouthful planned), but I’m feeling optimistic about aging now.

But I have to call bullshit and here’s why: how many of his stories revolve around the upper echelon in some Northeastern, suburbia household/town? Or, to be more specific, the foreign country of Buffalo, NY, where eternal love affairs and scandals/travesties seemingly occur every .3 seconds from Gurney’s perspective? Do the people of Buffalo have anything else to do other then have tumultuous family get-togethers and reunions? Or get wasted and unsheathe their claws at neighbors and frenemies? Gurney’s catalog is essentially a “Real Housewives of Buffalo” season, but done up to be all nostalgic and vintage-like.

“Nostalgic” is the operative word here, which pretty much overrides every other detractor you can say about Gurney’s writing. In a time and date where Buzzfeed and “on this date 10, 20 or 30 years ago…” news items populate the Internet, audiences everywhere gravitate to any revival of Gurney’s work for an effectively nostalgic, if primitive, piece. Sure, Gurney’s language and stories aren’t classically poetic or challenging, but they are easy to watch and pretty in their own way. Some can be considered ’timeless’ even; like watching an old movie from the 50’s or 60’s - by 2014 standards, they are no longer revolutionary. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find any enjoyment in them for what they are.

So no, Gurney’s plays don’t rank up high in my pantheon and like I said, the fact that he recycles his tropes so often “new dog, old tricks”-style frustrates me into thinking why people love him so much and why his work is revived constantly (not to mention, his new work still being produced). But will that stop me from sifting through his roticon? Nope, I’m there (wherever there is).

I get why a revival of Love Letters - now open at the Brooks Atkinson Theater - made its way to Broadway (aside from the obvious star-vehicles). Anyone wanting a chill night at the theatre and seeing a classic love friendship story told through five decades of letter-writing? Done. There you go. Buy a ticket for your favorite pair of performers, buy several for your friends. But did anyone associated with the production think, “oh shit, our show looks like a industry reading?”

Seriously, Love Letters is quaint as fuck, so some slight ambition, while not a mandate, is a viable request, amiright? But here’s what happens - a table and two chairs is at center-stage with nothing else surrounding it (literally). Andrew and Melissa, played this go-around by Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy, walk in from the stage-right wing and take their seats. They read the love letters written by their characters. After 90 minutes of this, the stage goes dark.

That’s it. Seriously. I could have sworn I was amidst the company of rich investors with their checkbooks in their pocket, contemplating whether or not to invest in a percentage of the show’s capitalization. From where I was seated, the front-row of the house-right orchestra, I noticed the actors read from their highlighted scripts and not even, say, a nice old-style hand-written letter. No scenic design. No variation in lighting. No signs of direction. No tangible movement or eye contact from the actors.

My eyes wondered around the theater to see two people asleep in the second row of the center-orchestra (which was funny for a Saturday night audience, not gonna lie). Also, there are a lot of outlets in the back-wall of the theater. In spite of all of that though, my attention was...mostly maintained throughout, such is the lovely of Gurney’s story. And Farrow and Dennehy should be commended for fleshing out their characters using only their reading voices, even though they aren’t exactly charismatic types where I’d pay to watch them read the phonebook.

But the end result is inoffensive even though the lack of thought to this show could have been the opposite. Gurney is not and never will be a compelling author like his mid-century peers, Arthur Miller, Tennesee Williams or even Edward Albee. But Love Letters, like most of Gurney’s other work, can sit with us. There is something there even if I am not crazy about it.

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

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