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A.R. Gurney's 'Love Letters' enjoys personal touches by revolving cast

To celebrate Valentine's Day, and maybe also to acknowledge this is a good season to stay inside and catch up on one's correspondence, O'Connell & Company is presenting a month's worth of "Love Letters," one of the most popular plays written by Buffalo-born theater legend A.R. Gurney.

The play is somewhat legendary on its own, for boiling down live theater to its most basic elements – two actors, a script and an audience – while still telling a rich and detailed story.

The action consists entirely of the characters Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (known as Andy), friends since childhood, sitting side by side while reading aloud the letters and cards they had written to one another over nearly half a century, beginning in the late 1930s. Except, the more we hear, the more we realize that theirs is much more than a friendship. (Of course, the play's title has already given away that secret.)

Actors reportedly like the show because they get to read their parts, rather than having to memorize them. The challenge is to make those readings interesting for the audience that is watching two people on a rather bare stage who never look at one another. A rotating cast of couples from Buffalo's theater community is performing on the company's home stage at the Park School, all under the direction of Roger Paolini.

Because Thursday's opening night was blindsided by the polar vortex, Susan Toomey and Peter Palmisano were the first to play Melissa and Andy in this production when it debuted on Friday. They were excellent.

Toomey's performance humanized the flighty and troubled Melissa, who was born into a family of wealth but not love. From her seat behind her desk, she revealed the insecurities behind Melissa's anger, and showed why Andy's friendship means so much to her, even when she profanely pretends to reject it.

As Andy, Palmisano is near perfect. He could have been born into the WASPy world of Gurney's plays, being childishly resistant as the boy forced to respond to party invitations, and then gradually finding that letters to Melissa are a liberating outlet from his stuffy upbringing.

Melissa's letters are shorter; she prefers to draw pictures and ask Andy for feedback. She also gets kicked out of her private schools while Andy thinks about ways to improve the administration at his, fretting over unfair positions on his crew team while Melissa is getting physical with boys she says she hates.

Andy rejects the idea of calling each other, telling Melissa that "I feel most alive when I'm holed up in some corner writing things down." He wants to think about what he communicates; she wants to "feel."  The same thing happens when they don't write – when one or the other does the postal equivalent of "ghosting," refusing to answer letters out of anger or because life has become to painful to share. Either way, something is wrong.

Toomey's mood gets darker as Melissa internalizes her demons. Andy's struggles are more external, as he tries to live up to social expectations of family and position. Gurney deftly underlines their differences when Andy includes Melissa on the mailing list for his family's wonderfully obnoxious "annual Christmas letter," the precursor to social media in which a family's year is airbrushed into an endless stream of humble success.

The intimacy of words on paper eventually leads to something more, and less sustainable. Things get messy and the letters themselves become problematic until the long-delayed affair reaches its abrupt conclusion, when love is not enough.

Each performer brings a slightly different attitude to his or her characters, and director Paolini said that he is seeing new things in the play with each new couple. Company founder Mary Kate O'Connell has announced that half-price tickets will be available for anyone who wants to make a return visit to see different actors in the roles.

THEATER REVIEW

A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" by O'Connell & Company

3.5 stars (out of four)

7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee Sunday in the Park School (4625 Harlem Road, Snyder). Runs through Feb. 24. Tickets are $15-$30 at oconnellandcompany.com or by calling 848-0800.

Rotating cast includes Pamela Rose Mangus and Phil Knoerzer, Darleen Pickering Hummert and Roger VanDette, Susan Toomey and Peter Palmisano, Constance Caldwell and Guy Tomassi, Anne Gayley and Keith Elkins, Mary Coppola Gjurich and Gregory Gjurich, Joyce Stilson and Neal Radice, and Lisa Ludwig and Russ Papia.

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