WASHINGTON -- A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters," currently at the National Theatre, is exactly what the title says: a collection of love letters.
Describing it as an epistolary drama would probably be going too far. The playwright's instructions require two actors to sit side by side at a table and read -- not memorize -- 50 years of correspondence.
Devotees of the dying art of letter-writing will probably be drawn to it as if it were a shrine. And well they should since this is glorious writing. Not only are these wonderful letters, they also tell a heartfelt story about two people of opposite temperaments who share a profound, but ultimately untenable relationship.
But the story isn't the only reason to see "Love Letters" -- or at least it wasn't prior to this national tour. The show became a phenomenon in New York due to the impressive list of actors who performed it on a rotating, or even one-time only, basis -- a situation made possible by the minimal need for rehearsal.
On tour, of course, it is impractical to switch casts every night; instead, various pairs of actors are performing it around the country. The National Theatre has drawn Colleen Dewhurst and E.G. Marshall, who are appearing through Nov. 11, under the direction of John Tillinger. After that, the theater hopes to bring in as many as four different teams of actors doing one-week stands.
In the meantime, the unusual nature of the show, combined with the fact that Miss Dewhurst is a much livelier reader than Mr. Marshall, suggest that this presentation will appeal to a specialized audience.
Miss Dewhurst plays -- or more accurately, reads the letters of -- Melissa Gardner, the rebellious, artistic daughter of wealthy, divorced parents. Melissa is no more than 8 in her first letter, and Miss Dewhurst imbues her with a spunky, naughty spirit. She then takes us convincingly through Melissa's painful growing up, conveyed solely by the altered inflections in her voice.
Mr. Marshall has the stodgier task of portraying Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, the well-behaved, dutiful scion of a less well-to-do, but equally social family. Admittedly, there is less to work with here, particularly since Andrew uses letters to disguise -- or avoid -- his feelings. Still, Mr. Marshall registers few changes in his character; not until Andrew achieves adulthood does he truly seem to fit the part.
One difficulty here may be that the playwright didn't intend actors to play these parts for sustained periods of time. The spontaneity that comes from reading, instead of memorizing, must be tricky to sustain without such basic acting tools as interaction between characters or being allowed to move on stage.
The result is unquestionably a curiosity, but "Love Letters" is a marvelous valentine to writing itself. And it would be a treat to see a more evenly balanced pair of actors.
"Love Letters" continues at the National Theatre through Nov. 11. For more information call (202) 628-6161.