Even over the crackly connection of a transcontinental conference call, the warmth and admiration Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal feel for each other comes across with perfect clarity.
And it stands to reason.
Theirs is one of the longest-standing Hollywood friendships, extending from their memorable appearance together in the 1970 hit “Love Story,” through difficult relationships and personal battles splashed across the tabloids, through appearances together at Oscar ceremonies and public events and finally to their current project: Another turn as co-stars in a hit love story, Buffalo-born playwright A.R. Gurney’s perennial favorite “Love Letters.”
MacGraw and O’Neal have been touring the show, which opens Wednesday in the 710 Main Theatre, for the last six months. And despite the fact that they came to the project with almost zero stage experience, they’ve been relishing every minute of the tour.
“It’s the most comfortable part of our day, when we’re on stage,” O’Neal said from his home in Malibu, Calif., while MacGraw listened in from Santa Fe, N.M. And she agreed: “I just am really comfortable in this whole situation, and that’s never happened for one minute before, so it’s really intriguing.”
Following their star-making turn in “Love Story,” neither MacGraw nor O’Neal has had a particularly comfortable experience in Hollywood. O’Neal’s film career petered out in the years after the movie, while MacGraw’s own career in film and television never quite delivered on the promise of her idealistic early days in the industry. The actors’ personal lives were no less fraught with challenges. Each of them faced relationship troubles, health crises and personal struggles, many of which unfolded under the unrelenting and sometimes maddening scrutiny of the celebrity media.
Much of MacGraw and O’Neal’s personal experiences have been brought to bear on this production of “Love Letters,” an epistolary two-person show in which two former lovers reflect on the regrets and triumphs of their lives, but in ways that remain purposely obscure to the audience.
Asked whether his own personal experiences sometimes rise to the surface during performances, O’Neal at first deflected the question before admitting that those experiences play an important role in his performance.
“I don’t think we want to talk about that, not in my case,” he said. “Sometimes I have to go far, far down inside myself to make it as real as possible. And I’m left exhausted.”
For her part, MacGraw suggested that while she certainly has ways of delving into her own experiences in the service of the story, she’s not about to reveal them.
“It’s not the same thing every night, but it’s well enough written that if we’re concentrating on doing it, we find our way to it in our own secret way,” she said. “You’ll see. It’s not a Coca-Cola advertisement.”
Given the complexity of her relationship with performing and her gradual turn toward other pursuits, MacGraw said that at this stage in her career she is only interested in projects that resonate with her.
“I loved it during ‘Love Story’ and I was miserable other times,” she said of her impulse to perform. “I only want to do something like this that really touches my heart. I don’t want to just be the woman of a certain age serving tea. I want it to count.”
And Gurney’s “Love Letters,” which has been performed countless times locally as well as internationally, seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
“I don’t find one single moment of it artificial or forced,” MacGraw said. “You’re sitting next to each other, never looking at each other at all, at least not that much, and listening. I think when our world is just that, it’s a very electrical feeling. It is for me.”
Because of their appearance in “Love Story,” MacGraw added, there are natural parallels audiences will draw to their own lives just by virtue of the cultural associations the actors evoke.
“Many, many, many people saw ‘Love Story’ at a specific time in their lives,” MacGraw said. “It certainly was a big moment the year it came out, and I think they’re reviewing, whether they know it or not, their own choices over the decades.”
Asked whether they had a favorite moment from the show that seemed to resonate most deeply, MacGraw and O’Neal, unsurprisingly, settled on the same one.
“Ryan has a speech about why he likes to write, which kills me every time,” MacGraw said. “It’s so beautifully written and so beautifully delivered.”
“And then she gets the laugh at the end of my speech,” O’Neal shot back, with the sort of snark only old friends can tolerate.
“You get the heart,” MacGraw said. “And I have to settle for a laugh.”