Every once in a while, you need a good cry.
And there are few more efficient routes to tear-driven catharsis than a production of A.R. Gurney’s endlessly rewatchable play “Love Letters,” running through May 22 in the 710 Main Theatre in an often riveting production starring ’70s film stars Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal.
At the end of the 90-minute production, the stars were crying. The audience was crying. I’d be willing to be the union folks up in the booth were crying. The ushers ought to hand out Kleenex with the programs.
The duo, suspended in amber in the American consciousness because of their appearance in the 1969 film “Love Story,” could not be a better fit for the epistolary play, which traces the divergent lives of two lovelorn members of the 1 percent who can never quite admit that they love each other.
From the moment MacGraw and O’Neal walk onto the stage, their chemistry is undeniable. MacGraw retains all the effortless glamour of her younger days, with her silver hair pulled back into a bun and black glasses framing a vibrant face. Everything about her, now as then, says joie de vivre. O’Neal, looking vaguely professorial in an Oxford and black blazer, still gives off an air of nonchalant confidence and charm, which carries him through the production until it strategically breaks down toward the end. Hence the waterworks.
The show’s producers, who were inspired to cast MacGraw and O’Neal in the play after they appeared in a series of photos in The Hollywood Reporter, certainly took a gamble with their approach: Just because a couple looks great in photos doesn’t mean they’ve got the chops to carry a piece like this off. But the bet paid off, with the pair evidently amplifying their own storied friendship into an utterly convincing performance.
The story is chronological, beginning with two children sending innocuous love notes to one another and gradually taking on a more serious tone as they go through boarding school, college and early adulthood. MacGraw is an expert in affecting a short temper or a kind of theatrical impetuousness for comic effect, as she often does in response to the alternately grandiose and snippy letters she receives from O’Neal’s character.
“I hear you made the law review, whatever that means,” MacGraw’s character says in one typically snarky exchange. “I assume that means you review laws.”
O’Neal, for his part, is an expert in pushing her buttons and in waxing poetic about his own drive to write, as when he presents one of Gurney’s more insightful lines: “Letters are a way of presenting yourself in the best possible light to another person.”
That very notion is what makes “Love Letters” so endlessly rewatchable. It taps into our own constantly frustrated desires to present ourselves to the world without any of our insecurities or flaws, whether through staged Instagram photos and Facebook posts, or through the ancient art of letter writing. But even those attempts are bound to reflect those flaws and insecurities. Hence, we learn, as Gurney’s characters do, that there is no escaping your own hangups or your own history.
To be sure, there’s an element of intrinsic stuffiness in the piece – and not the intentional, self-conscious kind that Gurney sometimes employs to get a laugh. An example is when he describes a sexual encounter between the two as “two uptight WASPs going at it like a sale at Brooks Brothers.” It can certainly be tiresome to listen to two rich kids complain about the trying circumstances of their lives, but to my ears that cloying element is the play’s own genetic and therefore incurable flaw.
Gurney’s play is indeed a love letter to the 1 percent, but also a polite critique of its culture. Knowing that helps it go down easier, as does a consistently charming, funny and ultimately heartbreaking performance from two gifted film actors who – lucky for us – have brought their career back to life on the stage.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Drama presented through May 22 in 710 Main Theatre (710 Main St.). Tickets are $47 to $52. Call (800) 745-3000 for tickets or 847-1410 for information, or visit sheas.org/710main