Wasps Are Stung By Gurney Plays

April 28, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

A. R. Gurney likes to write letters. He doesn't like to write speeches.

In a way, that's how his hit play, "Love Letters," evolved.

About three years ago Mr. Gurney was learning to use his home computer. "I was writing letters to my friends as a way of practicing," he recalled in a phone conversation from his New York apartment. "Then I started writing these fictional letters."

Before long the fictional letters began to center around two characters who had been floating around in the back of his mind -- a man and woman who meet as children and carry on a lifelong friendship, tinged with romance. Like most of the characters Mr. Gurney creates -- for that matter, like Mr. Gurney himself -- the pair are upper-middle-class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Not knowing whether he'd written a play, a short story or $H something else entirely, he decided to experiment with it as a speech. "I had to give this speech at the New York Public Library, and I don't like giving speeches much anyway, so I thought I'll try this out," he explained.

Together with an actress friend, he read the imaginary correspondence. They planned to read just part of it, but the audience wouldn't let them stop.

And "Love Letters" hasn't stopped since.

The distinctive two-person play, which begins a one-month engagement at the Mechanic Theatre on Tuesday, has been "seenby more people and made more money than anything else I've ever written," says the author of three novels and 15 plays, including "The Dining Room," "Scenes from American Life" and "The Cocktail Hour" (which on Friday began a five-weekend run at Theatre Hopkins).

"Love Letters" has been mounted in foreign countries from Japan to Brazil, as well as most of Europe. Even more impressive is the number of actors -- more than 200 -- who have portrayed its archetypal WASP protagonists, Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner. The list includes Steve Allen, Diahann Carroll, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Charlton Heston, Timothy Hutton, Diana Rigg, Kathleen Turner and, of course, Colleen Dewhurst and George Hearn, who will be performing it here.

"Love Letters" director John Tillinger, a veteran of five other Gurney scripts, believes audiences respond to these works, and to this play in particular, because the playwright hits a universal chord: "He's very true to feelings, and though the feelings are expressed in a very WASP way, which is often avoidance in one form or another, the feelings are correct."

For actors, part of the appeal of "Love Letters" is that the playwright insists the script be read -- not memorized. "Since the theme of the piece is people who communicate through their letters, it's important that they be locked to the page. It adds a restriction that contributes to the theme," Mr. Gurney explained.

That restriction also means the play doesn't require extensive rehearsals. "What you do is get together one day and go through it," Mr. Tillinger said. In Los Angeles, where "Love Letters" just celebrated its first anniversary, actors regularly step into the roles for short runs between TV or film shoots.

It's also entirely appropriate that the touring production of "Love Letters" coincides here with a production of "The Cocktail Hour," Gurney's semi-autobiographical play about a writer who writes a playabout his family, much to his parents' dismay. "Love Letters" made its New York debut in 1989 at the Promenade Theater. "The Cocktail Hour" was already playing there. However, the producers decided to give the epistolary drama a try on dark nights.

Multiple openings appear to be the norm for the prolific Mr. Gurney. A week from tonight his latest play, "The Old Boy," about the old-boy network in American politics, opens at Playwrights Horizons in New York. Four days later, San Diego's Old Globe Theatre will mount the second production of "The Snow Ball," Mr. Gurney's theatrical adaptation of his 1984 novel of the same name. The story of several prominent Buffalo, N.Y., citizens who restage a popular society ball of their youth, "The Snow Ball" premiered at Connecticut's Hartford Stage in February.

Nor is that all Mr. Gurney is up to. He's also working on a new play, which he'd rather not discuss. And he's "deep into" the screenplay of "Love Letters" for Columbia Pictures. What form this movie will take is difficult to imagine, since much of the "Love Letters" phenomenon rests on the fact that not only is the script read, but the actors sit side by side at a table, not moving or even facing each other.

The screenplay "will be very different," Mr. Gurney acknowledged, explaining that the movie will include secondary characters and "will be much more visually focused. The theme of letter writing will still be there, through voiceovers and things like that, but I'm trying to make it a new thing." And despite the hundreds of actors experienced in these roles, so far the cast has not been chosen.

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