`Love Letters': A's all around

Preview: Steven Weber and Laura Linney give top-notch performances in A.R. Gurney's play. But the real star turn comes from director Stanley Donen.

April 12, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Chris Kaltenbach

Two actors on top of their game and an old-guard director anxious to show he's still got it combine to make "Love Letters" a television event not to be missed, a rare chance to see a literate, character-driven play handled lovingly on the small screen.

The actors are Steven Weber and (especially) Laura Linney, both utterly convincing as the staid, risk-averse child of privilege and the free spirit he's loved since both were kids. But theirs is no conventional romance; instead, it's carried out largely through the mail, as the two characters go away to school, work on their careers and marry other people.

The director is Stanley Donen, a Hollywood veteran whose resume dates back to the '40s, and includes a co-director's credit on the perennial favorite, "Singin' In the Rain" (he's also the man whose soft shoe stole the show at the Academy Awards in 1998).

Although he hasn't made a film since 1984's unfortunate "Blame It On Rio," Donen clearly remembers plenty of the tricks of his trade: his graceful, carefully choreographed camera movements give "Love Letters" a grace that infuses the entire film. It's not for nothing Donen spent all those hours making Gene Kelly look good.

The film opens with U.S. Sen. Andrew Ladd (Weber) returning from a good friend's funeral. Walking into his study, he begins reflecting on his relationship with Melissa Gardner (Linney), who conveniently materializes alongside him to join in the moment.

To its credit, "Love Letters" doesn't make a big deal of Melissa's initial appearance; there's no musical crescendo, no astonished looks or supernatural sounds. She just quietly shows up, and together she and Andrew retrace their lives by reciting the letters they'd spent 30 years writing each other.

For Melissa and Andrew have been chronicling their relationship on paper almost from the moment she walked into his first-grade classroom. Although unlikely companions -- she's an aspiring artist, he an aspiring lawyer -- they grow to lean on each other, using the mail to stay connected despite different boarding schools, different colleges and different lifestyles.

While Melissa sometimes objects to this relationship based on the written word (she'd rather use a telephone or meet face to face), Andrew insists it's good, realizing that letters promote an honesty that's not always possible in person. And it isn't long before Melissa realizes how right he is; reacting with horror when Andrew starts sending her pre-printed Christmas cards and photocopied form letters.

The made-for-TV film, adapted by A. R. Gurney from his play, does a wonderful job of capturing the emotional bond that forms between pen pals, the way a letter can say so much more than what's actually on the paper and how much it hurts when you don't receive a letter in return.

In the play, the characters' dialogue consists entirely of letters read back and forth to each other; Gurney opens up the action some by having Melissa and Andrew actually talk to each other, but never so much that "Love Letters" loses the intimacy that is one of the play's greatest strengths.

In the hands of lesser talents, all of this could have come off irredeemably hackneyed and trite. But Weber, his hair slicked back, his jaw muscles tense, does nicely as the straight-arrow control freak who's most comfortable with people he doesn't have to look in the eye.

And Linney (seen most recently as Jim Carrey's "wife" in "The Truman Show") practically glows onscreen, never, even at her worst moments, coming off less-than-likable as the funny, carefree and obstinate Melissa. Linney expertly underplays scene after scene in a marvelous performance.

But the real star here may be Donen, whose direction makes everyone associated with "Love Letters" look good. Maybe it's no coincidence that Linney and Weber do some of their best work here; as he proved with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in 1958's "Indiscreet," Donen knows all about making these two-character stories sing. It's nice to have him back.

`Love Letters'

When: 9 p.m.-11 p.m .

Where: ABC, WMAR, Channel 2

Pub Date: 4/12/99

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