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Theater Review: TV Couple Reunites for One Weekend of Love Letters at the Rep East

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- by Stephanie Taylor for LAist

Repertory East Playhouse revived a popular favorite last weekend, in a weekend-only production of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters. Love Letters chronicles the relationship from grade-school to late middle age between free-thinking artist socialite Melissa Gardner and her respectable, politically ambitious friend Andrew Makepeace Ladd III. Taking advantage of resources available by virtue of its L.A.-metro location, the production reunited Tony Dow and Janice Kent who played the title husband/wife duo on The New Leave it to Beaver in the 80s. The story is told entirely through the correspondence the two have kept throughout the course of their lifetime.

Though the play has an achingly slow start (how interesting can elementary correspondence be?), it builds slowly to reveal the fickleness of desire yet the steadfastness of genuine friendship and affection. The plot points are a bit tired--the solid, dependable gentleman pursues the rebellious free spirit unsuccessfully, until he winds up the U.S. Senate while she dries out in rehab--alone--and the roles reverse regarding pursuer and pursued. But there's a reason the play has seen so many productions. Despite its dips into predictability, it manages to capture a full-range of human emotion and experience solely through these letters, difficult work indeed.

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Love Letters provides a glimpse into the privileged lives of East Coast WASPs in the mid-20th century, complete with boarding schools, governesses and summer camps. We are left to wonder at how two people who grow up in the same town in the same world can lead such very different lives. The show was first staged in the late 1980s and can carry new meanings in contemporary productions.

In an era of instant gratification -- the age of Facebook, Twitter, iPhones and SMS -- it's a reminder of a more traditional, slower form of communication. Whereas an hour without a reply text or tweet can seem a rude dismissal in the age of Internet etiquette, letters can take days or weeks to arrive. And whereas the modern instantaneous type-speak leads to filterless communication, not only replete with grammatical errors but also sloppy ideas, letter-writing takes us back to the days of rough drafts and erasures, when words and thoughts were carefully selected before the paper was folded and the envelope was licked. Back to a day when communication was intentional.

And this very issue of timing is Gurney's most delicious dramatic tool. We as the audience feel the silences as strongly as the ignored, sympathizing with the character as s/he wonders if another letter will one day come. It reminds us that silence is more poignant than words, and we also wonder if those damn letters had just got there sooner, if that would have changed everything. If instead of passing each other by, they would have ran straight into each other.

Love Letters is frequently produced with headline actors because the letters are literally read, minimizing pre-production time. Repertory East made a smart and nostalgic decision to bring back a TV couple for the weekend-only production. But Kent's performance in particular dazzled with its nonchalance, liveliness, desire and desperation. Who would have thought reading a letter could show us such so much of the human condition?

Love Letters is a smack in the face to traditional story-telling, which always beseeches "show, not tell." Although it may be a "told" story, it is artfully done and shows us that romance is complicated, and friendship and desire will always be fierce competitors. It's also a bittersweet reminder that sometimes we can write truths that we simply cannot bring ourselves to speak.