Sketch Club Players’ LOVE LETTERS Risky Business a Success

by Jack Shaw

Miriam Reichenbach and Frank Myers star in LOVE LETTERS, playing through April 10 at Sketch Club Players of Woodbury.

A.R. Gurney writes in his introduction that LOVE LETTERS “began as a series of finger exercises as I was teaching myself to use the computer.” That makes it all the more amazing in this day and age when love notes are texted instead of passed to friend that theatre can be made of this almost archaic form of communication using pen and ink. The Sketch Club Players’ production of Gurney’s LOVE LETTERS in Woodbury, NJ made the audience sit up and take notice of two actors sitting and reading letters on stage. That’s a theatre feat in itself. The story, of course, is in the letters–the sequence of letters as they are read back and forth to the audience. There is no movement other than the actors as they dramatize the letters they are reading.

I have never seen this play performed although I did read most of it before I saw it tonight.  The play reads very smoothly for a play because it is a non-traditional form to be sure. Frank Myers as “Andrew Makepeace, III” (Andy) and Miriam Reichenbach as “Melissa Gardner” gave rich drama and life to the letters from a wonderfully written script, but their take was risky. It was risky because theatre is not usually static, and they, the actors were unusually restrained because they were only sitting, per the playwright.

There is danger in that the performance can come off is artificial, too acted and better listened to only than seen and heard–in essence a radio play, or a staged reading. To be successful as a play, the actors, with the help of the director, must find the difference. Did the actors achieve that distinction? Let’s come back to that.

The act of writing and sending letters is orchestrated by timing and word-smithing to say just what you want to say at the time. Unfortunately, there are two immediate problems:  one, there is no feedback, and two, you can’t take it back if you decide you didn’t mean to say it with a hug or a look. It’s out there for keeps. And, the receiver can reflect long and hard before replying, again, with a perfect reply to that concrete moment in time.

A letter is meant to sound like life, but it isn’t. It may be a reasonable facsimile or it may have invisible ink between the lines. So, the acting must reflect that subtlety as well. We can’t read letters like a script that is meant to reflect reality–only its approximation. For example, Tennessee Williams in THE GLASS MENAGERIE did not write realistic prose for Tom to say, but poetic words for that of a dreamer at the time, hiding behind an illusion of life. Thus, it should be with letters. On the surface, they appear to be real, but are they the total truth? The acting was so good at times that what was not said in the letter was reflected in the acting. Bravo.

Beware that the reaction to the letter does not read between the lines. The reader/actor might or might not perceive it. It’s a risky moment. Theatre is about making it real.

The actors gave excellent performances, but I heard the radio play in the first act. The childish voices were a bit disconcerting and it was easier to listen, which takes away the stage. All I know is that I, personally, drifted off watching actors act instead of live on stage. I’m talking such subtlety that I don’t even know is possible. These actors did a tremendous job and held my attention–especially in the second act. I know it’s staged the way it is, but I think the intensity can be shaved off a bit to work. Sitting in an easy chair and holding what looks like a letter is different from turning pages of a book on a lectern. The action is as much in the reaction to the letter as it is being read or after it has been read and thought about. The pauses where letters were not being written and sent or received were perfect.

So, why letters? You either get to know someone extremely well or not at all because we see only what is presented to us, and we choose to believe the message or suspect it. Sometimes, it’s too abrupt. Manipulation of the message is possible to suit our own purposes, to send our own messages. So it goes for relationships. Getting to know someone too well or not well enough can destroy a relationship or make it last forever. There is no exact amount of time or knowledge to ensure our happiness, but it is how we use what we have that makes a difference. I think that is the message here.

“Writing is fraught with dangers,” Gurney says. When he wrote that I think he was talking about his own writing, this play; but it also fits for his characters. Writing allows us to control our environment, by managing and organizing, make order of our world.

For some, especially Andy, it is way out of a restrictive world and a way to express his feelings and stay close to his love object. Melissa, on the other hand, sees writing for what it does for Andy, allowing him to mask the truth as well as reveal it, which is why she fights his writing of them at every step. She sends a drawing or wants to use her voice instead.

It is interesting that Melissa is the artist who uses the least concrete means of expression, and he, the lawyer, quite the opposite. As he becomes stronger and more confident in manipulating his writing, she grows weaker and finally becomes dependent on the connection. The LOVE LETTERS that made Andy resolute and take control of his life has a part in destroying Melissa who becomes too dependent on the mail and the male.

Even in today’s fast-paced world of instant and personal communication, the lesson is still valid; we can say too much or too little when it comes to establishing a relationship with someone. I think Gurney himself would agree this play of words and letters is not for everyone as he worried about its stage value as he wrote the play, but I found The Sketch Club’s production of LOVE LETTERS a most interesting, entertaining and unique way to look at life. I would have to say George Reich’s directorial debut on The Sketch Club stage was successful. This wasn’t the theater’s first choice but it was a great choice and they did an excellent job presenting it.

by A. R. Gurney
Directed by George Reich
April 1 – 10, 2011
Sketch Club Players of Woodbury
433 Glover St
Woodbury, NJ 08096

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