Write to the heart

A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” needs action and emotion to balance its clever exchanges.

Greg Corradini

Love letters should be more than a cheap Valentine’s Day card and chalky candy. As Italian Renaissance poets Petrarch and Dante proved, love letters can be highly stylized extramarital affairs, where intimacies are played out with pen and paper.

A.R. Gurney’s play “Love Letters,” a staging of one such amorous correspondence, can’t live up to these august antecedents. Currently onstage at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theatre, “Love Letters” has all the verbiage but skimps on the sweltering passion.

Andy (Steve Lewis) has been writing Melissa (Kirby Bennett) since her childhood birthday party in 1937, and the play follows this paper trail for 50 years. At first short and sweet, Andy’s adolescent letters begin to hinge on sexual curiosity and an abnormal amount of practicality, a virtue (or vice) that will lead him into politics.

“I’m stroking the fourth crew now,” Andy tells Melissa. “Yesterday, I rowed number two on third. Tomorrow I may row number six on the second or number four on the fifth. Who knows?”

One thing Melissa, a well-to-do artistic fop-in-training, does know is that she would rather “hear more about (Andy’s) feelings.” The rest of the play, using this unsolved equation, pits Andy’s pragmatism against Melissa’s caprice. But due to the he-said-she-said packaging, Gurney’s characterizations feel uninspired and one-dimensional.

Girl Friday Productions stays close to Gurney’s stage directions. Lewis and Bennett’s chairs are pushed together, facing the audience. Two small podiums holding their scripts adorn the table before them. They read the correspondence as one would play tennis, serving questions and taking turns advancing the narrative with their written replies. Neither Lewis nor Bennett break the visual space between them as they stare into the void above the audiences’ heads and speak. Lewis, with his screwy eyes, bold voice and angry side-glances turns some of Gurney’s marmalade moments into substantial meals.

Tired of letter writing, Melissa prods Andy to take up phone conversation instead. Andy answers Melissa’s demand with his epistolary philosophy. “(That letter) was like talking to you when you weren’t here. And when you couldn’t interrupt. Letters are a way of presenting yourself in the best possible light to another person.”

Andy’s lines nip the heel of a human phenomenon – the futility of expecting language to reveal something substantial about another person. Nevertheless, the lines seem shallow until Lewis invests an emotional honesty in them that the rest of Gurney’s play lacks.

For the audience, watching “Love Letters” can be tedious. The actors mouth emotions instead of enacting them while the stage remains devoid of movement and image.

Lewis and Bennett give their best to this production. Their eyes pop and shoulders rock, conveying aspects of their characters’ emotional terrain but to little avail.

Toward the end of the first act, as the couple enters their early 20s, Andy gives another lesson in his philosophy of letter writing. “No, this is just me, me the way I write, the way my writing is, the way I want to be to you, giving myself to you across a distance.”

The best way to show your love for someone might be from across a distance. Unfortunately, the best way for an audience to view “Love Letters” would entail positioning them emotionally in the immediate action instead of at the cold distance of mere listeners.