Love Letters, which were opened Sept. 18 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, revealed a suddenly re-awakened actress who’s been out of the theatrical limelight far too long.
The tumultuous reception that welcomed Mia Farrow back to Broadway in a revival of A.R. Gurney Jr.’s classic two-hander about love’s-labour’s-lost-in-the-mail seemed to sincerely stun her, and she was still reeling when she met the press afterward.
“I had forgotten about acting, I guess,” she admitted wistfully. “I was distracted.”
Sitting beside Brian Dennehy on a bare stage (save for a table, two chairs and two glasses of water provided by the multi-Tony-winning set designer John Lee Beatty), reading 50 years of correspondence between a pair of WASPy New England bluebloods, she reminded audiences what a resourceful and rangy actress she is. With vocal inflections and a gloriously emotive face, she takes us through The Ages of Woman, from abused childhood to rebellious adolescence to flirty collegiate to a string of marriages and alienated children to a failed career as an artist to therapy and alcoholic rehab—all the time maintaining a literary lifeline to the love of her life. By the time Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner get around to consummating their courtship, “going at it like a Brooks Brothers sale,” it’s past the 50-year mark and well past the point of no return.
In the era of twitter and instagram, writing letters looms very much like a lost art, and Gurney said the loss of that quaint practice motivated the piece: “I realized in the ‘70s and ‘80s that the world I grew up in was dependent on so many customs which were no longer existing, so I wanted to see if I could celebrate letter-writing.”
This epistolary play, a Pulitzer also-ran in 1990, begins in 1937 B.C. (Before Cellphones) with a second-grade birthday party, starting slowly with personal notes passed in class, through Valentines, wedding invitations, birth announcements, Xeroxed Christmas family letters, ending with a sympathy card for a primal friend.
Two fully developed human beings emerge from these scraps of paper, gulps of life taken at Evelyn Wood speed—much the way the movie “Boyhood” speeds through 17 years of a boy’s life with dramatic shorthand that adds up to a full portrait.
At the after party at the Brassiere on West 57th, Farrow generously credited her performance to Gurney’s words and Gregory Mosher’s direction. “She’s a complicated person,” the actress said. “That’s the joy of doing it. That’s why it’s so compelling and not easy. I did this role at a benefit one night—I just read it, with Sam Waterson, for a good cause, but I hadn’t gotten into it at all with any depth.”
The performance qualifies as revelatory in light of Farrow’s criminally meager theatre past. This is her first sustained Broadway performance since her buoyantly comic debut opposite the late Tony Perkins in Bernard Slade’s Romantic Comedy 35 years ago. She lent her recorded voice to 17 performances of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Getting Away With Murder, and she was a superbly daft and drunk Honey in a one-night-only benefit of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Uta Hagen, Jonathan Pryce and Matthew Broderick. Except for a fleeting appearance Off-Broadway in 2005 Fran’s Bed, the rest has been screen work, large and small.
Dennehy, who effortlessly returns the serve in the less flashy role of the career-driven Ladd, shedding personal entanglements to go from lawyer to senator, manfully accepted the short end of the stick and made a baton of it. "It’s not hard acting this, believe me. It’s a beautiful piece. Anybody who writes well makes it easy.
“Andy’s such an asshole most of his life, but this woman punctures his ego all of the time and changes his perception of himself, which is great. That’s why he loves her so much, because she’s so honest and has been right from the beginning. He survives and goes on. She’s the one who has the problem living with life. She’s sympathetic, and she also has a helluvah job. It’s a privilege to be on stage with Mia. She kinda recycles Elaine Stritch to some extent. This lady is as good an actress as I’ve ever worked with, if not better. Hell, I could work with her for the rest of my life.”
Unfortunately, the relationship will only last till Oct. 10 when Farrow laterals the role to Carol Burnett, and Dennehy will stay in place for another four weeks. “But it won’t be the same Andy Ladd,” he promised, “because Carol will be different.”
Lead producer Nelle Nugent has lined up a small galaxy of stars to keep Love Letters twirling until Feb. 15 when Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen finish their 43 performances. Several more duos are being paged to follow that. It was her brainchild to revive Love Letters. “First of all, it’s a great play and Gurney isn’t appreciated at the level that he should be, as one of our great playwrights.”
On the less lofty side of the ledger, there’s expediency. “I was getting a lot of calls from agents, particularly Hollywood agents, about this star or that star wanting to play Broadway—but they want short runs, so I started to think that these people should be given the opportunity and I fastened on Love Letters. I had seen it last about 25 years ago in San Francisco with Diana Rigg and Stacy Keach, who’ll be doing it in December here, which was kinda resurrecting my previous experience.”
Leading with Farrow was also her idea. “We wanted to start with a cast that felt completely in the universe of the play. I thought the most elegant actor for Melissa would be Mia. I pitched the part to her. I knew Mia 30 years ago, ever since I produced Morning’s at Seven and her mom, Maureen O’Sullivan, starred in it.”
Frederick Zollo and his wife, Barbara Broccoli, who have an office in the Sardi’s building next to Nugent, were quick to come aboard. “Barbara went to the same school in London that Mia did a little period later,” Zollo said. “Mia Farrow was so famous at the school—or infamous—that the first thing the Mother Superior said to Barbara was, ‘Who do you think you are? Mia Farrow?’ We just couldn’t resist.
“Not only is Mia a treasure as an actor, she’s a treasure as a person. She has done so much for people around the world. Her work at the United Nations is extraordinary. She’s an amazing woman and an amazing actor. This performance is mind-boggling.”
Broccoli jetted off to London right after the show so she could be at Pinewood in the a.m. for the start of the next James Bond she’s producing. Daniel Craig stars again.
Jane Greenwood, who just got a Lifetime Achievement Tony for her costume designs, said the costumes would change with the stars. “I ask them, ‘How do you feel you should really be for this role?’ and make them comfortable. That’s my game.”
Director Mosher said directing actors to read a play is no different than directing actors to act a play. “It’s exactly the same as A View From the Bridge or Hamlet. You try to tell the story, and, for us, what we found was crucial was when the letters went unanswered—when they reached out to each other and the other person wouldn’t respond. Behind those silences, you realize there’s a disconnect. I’m old enough to remember going to the mailbox every day, going, ‘Where’s the letter?’ “The trick of all acting—any actor will tell you this—is that you have to listen to what’s being said. You have to put your attention on the other person because what the other person does tells you what you need to know. The challenge of this—and why you need such good actors—is because you have to put your attention on the other actor without looking at the other person. It all becomes about listening.”
And where do the good listeners hang out? “We made a list of actors we wanted to work with, and many of them we still hope will come on board. Then it was really up to the gods as to who was free when and who wanted to work with who. Brian and Mia wanted to work together. Then Brian and Carol wanted to work together. Then I asked Alan Alda, and he said, ‘Yeah. What about Candice Bergen?’ For the actors, it’s a chance to be together in a very energetic and vivid, but also wonderfully intimate and warm kind of deal. It’s on stage and it’s backstage, and you get caught up. I think tonight you could see how much Dennehy and Farrow love each other. It’s on stage.”
Opening night saw a light sprinkling of stars, most of whom are rehearsing shows. Tracee Chimo is preparing for a Nov. 5 Second Stage opening of Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, in which she and Michael Chernus play siblings. After the run, they will resume filming their marriage for Netflick’s “Orange Is the New Black.”
Carole Shelley is readying to replace Jane Carr in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. She doubts if she’ll be seeing the third Broadway version of the play that won her the Tony, The Elephant Man: 1) she’s working, and 2) she’s “too close to it.”
Also: Daniel Reichard, an original Jersey Boy behind that beard, and comedienne-producer Jamie de Roy, among other producers (Dennis Grimaldi, Elliott Masie).
The only producer of Love Letters to actually play Love Letters (opposite Tammy Grimes six years ago)—Joe Sirola--peered deeply into his crystal ball and came up with the correct answer: “The reviews are going to say, ‘Welcome back, Mia Farrow.’ She hasn’t been around for years and years, so they are really going to cheer her.”
Mamma Mia, what a night!