Review: ‘Love Letters’ at Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center

Talk about age-appropriate casting: Love Letters, a play about the 50-year relationship between a man and a woman, is now at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore starring a man and a woman acclaimed for playing lovers almost 50 years ago in the movie Love Story. 

So, is love better the second time around for Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal? Answer: Yes and no.

On the one hand, A.R. Gurney’s 1988 Love Letters is a two-person play told entirely in exchanged correspondence. It is read by two actors sitting at a rehearsal table reading their back-and-forth exchanges from a three-ring binder. What works best about the play would work just about as well on radio.

Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in 'Love Letters.' Photo by Jason Gillman.
Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in ‘Love Letters.’ Photo by Jason Gillman.

On the other hand, if you’re going to sit in a theater watching two actors do a read-through, you could hardly find more attractive people to look at for 90 minutes than Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal. And together they do manage to bring their star alchemy to Gurney’s sometimes feisty text.

Looking fit and relaxed, the two graying actors waste no time taking their chairs and launching into the readings. By this time, after being on the road with the play for over 11 months, not even a giant surge of applause from the Baltimore audience could faze them.

In Love Letters they play two characters, Melissa and Andy, who are not too dissimilar from the people they once played in Love Story. Melissa Gardner is rich, entitled, impulsive and uninhibited. Andrew Makepeace Ladd III is not so comfortably well-off so he has to work harder at being preppy.

Andy is by nature rather conservative, though even in second grade he is attracted to Melissa’s bohemian spirit. Melissa rather enjoys being the notorious gadfly in Andy’s nose-to-the-grindstone social set. At first they attend to all the expectations of their station, discussing the etiquette of filling one’s dance cards while privately sharing naughty drawings and admitting to rebellious urges.

Over the course of their 50-year correspondence they miss most every opportunity to become serious lovers. Each ends up marrying someone else while hanging onto the escape valve of that shared paper trail.

The vicissitudes of life change their standings, both to the world and to one another. One of the more clever inventions in Gurney’s text is how he uses periods of silence to reveal how the peevishness of one writer brings out the insecurities of the other.

What might be called significant world issues tiptoe past now and again. Andy becomes an officer in the Navy during the Cold War, for example, and later serves as a diplomat to Japan. Melissa soars for a time as a painter in Italy but works herself into an alcoholic lather as the trophy bride of a Wall Street powerbroker named, believe it or not, Darwin.

Director Gregory Mosher has staged everything from Sophocles to Beckett in the course of his decades at the Goodman Theatre and on Broadway and Lincoln Center. While there is nothing too probing or emotionally rich about Love Letters, he sees that it gets all of its intended laughs and even winds things up on a note of much deserved poignancy.

Ali MacGraw could play Melissa hanging upside down in a tank. She specializes in being caustic while remaining intrinsically lovable. Ryan O’Neal is just as strong and likable a presence as Andy. While neither can claim much of a background in live theater, together they turn Gurney’s brittle love story into something far livelier than a pen-and-ink affair.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.


Love Letters plays through this Sunday, June 12, 2016 at the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For ticket, call Charge-by-phone at (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them online.

Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal bring ‘Love Letters’ to Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre by John Harding.



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