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MacGraw, O'Neal deliver "Love Letters" for a digital age
A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” has been enacted by scores of couple combinations since its Off-Broadway debut in 1988 at the New York Public Library.
But this week’s Fisher Theatre presentation of the austere, all-talk play has a little bit of extra history to enhance its lengthy history.
Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal are, of course, forevermore the star-crossed couple of 1970’s Academy Award-nominated adaptation of Erich Segal’s “Love Story.” That brings a potent set of memories and expectations to their pairing as “Love Letters’” Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III. The two don’t necessarily channel the film’s Jenny Cavalleri and Oliver Barrett IV, but there’s enough common ground -- Ladd and Barrett even play Ivy League hockey and are Law Review all-stars, albeit at Yale and Harvard, respectively -- to take this particular incarnation of “Love Letters” a step beyond its scripted path.
MacGraw and O’Neal, 77 and 74 respectively, clearly rekindle their onscreen chemistry even as they’re seated at a table, reading from binders as their wealthy Connecticut characters share a lifelong correspondence that starts with innocent Valentines and invitations to help distribute the school milk and cookies and cruises through four or five decades -- and decidedly heavier emotional circumstances -- with a breezy cadence that makes these “letters” feel more like e.mail or text message exchanges. It’s a love affair even when the two hate each other (always temporarily), that kind of ride that can’t help but end in a bittersweet resolve.
The genuineness of all that is down to the actors, of course. “Love Letters’ “ banter is sometimes so unsparingly honest that it tests the limits of believability; MacGraw and O’Neal make it work with their inflections and expressions, as well as bits of body language that add a physical dimension to complement the written page. O’Neal embodies preppy reserve, conveying his emotions with furrowed brow, hunched shoulders and verbal eloquence -- never better than in a lengthy discourse about why he prefers letters to telephone calls. “Letters,” his Andrew says, “are a way of presenting yourself in the best possible light to another person.”
MacGraw, meanwhile, gives Melissa plenty of shoot-from-the-hip spunk, challenging and provoking Andrew as no one in his life can or ever well, and appreciating -- albeit begrudgingly -- the way he helps ground her when she allows it. She’s quick-witted and sharp-tongued, a poor little rich girl with issues that ultimately lead to her undoing, and MacGraw delivers Melissa’s descent with her own kind of reserve, maintaining a steadfast sanity and just enough self-control to let her despair build over the course of the play.
That its 85 minutes fly by is a testament to both Gurney’s concept and to the way MacGraw and O’Neal present it. “Love Letters” is indeed a “Love Story,” as true, if more complete and complex, as the tale that turned them both into stars 46 years ago.
Through Sunday, April 17.
The Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd.
Tickets are $65-$85.
Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
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