AT&T Performing Arts Center
Director – Gregory Mosher
Scenic and Lightning Design – Peter Kaczorowski
Costume Designer – Jane Greenwood
Sound Designer – Scott Lehrer
Associate Lighting Designer – John Viesta
Associate Sound Designer – Will Pickens
Casting – Telsey & Company
Tour Booking & Marketing – Broadway Booking Office NYC
Technical Supervisor – Hudson Theatrical Associates
Stage Manager – David W. Zack
Company Manager – Scott M. Ellis
Senior General Manger – Gregory Vander Ploeg
Producers – Nelle Nugent, Barbara Broccoli, Frederick Zollo, Olympus Theatricals, Michael G. Wilson, Lou Spisto, Colleen Camp, Postmark Entertainment Group, Edith Ann Abrams, Pat Flicker Addiss, Kenneth Teaton
Co-Producers – Jon Bierman, Tim DeGraye, Daniel Frishwasser, Elliot Masie, Mai Nguyen, Scott Lane, Joseph Sirola
Associate Producer – Demar Solis
Andrew Makepeace Ladd III – Ryan O’Neal
Melissa Gardner – Ali McGraw
Reviewed Performance 3/22/2016
Reviewed by Ryan Maffei, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
It was three years and change ago in Beverly Hills, at the Saban Theater; a cool Monday night on which a gaggle of patrons of, mostly, a certain age and affluence had arrived to watch Judy Collins and Stephen Stills fawn over one another in the glow of automatic nostalgia. Stills, then 68, has lacked key teeth since he auditioned to be one of the Monkees and, increasingly deaf, has been mumbling through them since “Southern Cross” was a hit. But his brown dye job has suited him for ages, and he straddles that unusual field between “broad” and “fit”. All of 74 under mounds of trademark candid grey, Collins was radiant. Both were cordial, articulate and chatty, as always, and at some point in this experiment in controlled old chemistry, payoff arrived. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” had come up, for reasons unnecessary to include, and once some trivia had been sufficiently unpacked Stills turned to his former muse and twinkled, “I don’t know how to thank you for that song,” extending a sentimental hand beyond mere friendship and speaking fee. “Nor I you,” she cooed back. You could feel the collective swoon like a breaking wave.
The limits of public figure fixation have been smithereens since then. We have vessels along the entire legitimacy spectrum for indulging our curiosity over artists’ personal lives. While superstars contend with divorce probes and leaks about backstage blowups, the impulse to apply our own theories, as yet unbroken by the press, is instantly initiated by any scene or song with remote emotional relevancy. This is how people become superstars – they stir our emotional curiosity. And while there’s little correlation between brilliant, award worthy work and idol-level recognition, when we watch Leo DiCaprio manage a convincing emotion we have some index of where/who he is apt to be drawing it from, and this fuels our already well-stimulated enthusiasm. Perhaps this has contributed to his odd consistency in getting hired by class-A directors, off a dubious prior record. But John Travolta and Michael Keaton suggest the line between celebrity and artistry is thin indeed, dependent only on context and presence. It need hardly matter in 2013 that “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was an exorcism of depressive frustration about Collins.
And there are a host of Americans who remember 1970 in all its insanity who believe that Stephen Stills and Judy Collins are not, in fact, public figures of any significant import: that Collins is a genteel hack, the weightlessness of whose oeuvre would soon be shown up for chaste obsolescence for the more honest and hard-edged efforts of Joni Mitchell and Carole King; that Stills is, along with rich bounty of testimony to his being a giant egotistical asshole, no Neil Young in numerous embarrassing ways. Those Americans may also have encountered and formed a fervid opinion about one of the single highest-grossing motion picture of that year, Love Story. The film is no less polarizing a wedge issue than anything else the Nixon years brought to the cultural forefront. A wide and thriving subset of the population depends on things like Love Story as a rudder for their very existential optimism – inhabitants of a more traditional, moral, sweetie-pie worldview perhaps, though plenty of anarchistic freaks enjoy The Notebook. A similarly wide subset believes Love Story epitomizes a brand of utter horseshit it spurred into dispiriting dominance.
Love is the story of two heartbreakingly attractive Harvard attendees who fall in etc. across class lines, and make hay of this reciprocated passion until one dies. (That’s not a spoiler – everybody knows that this happens. Even if you haven’t seen it you know that this happens). The famous tagline is “love means never having to say you’re sorry”, which everybody involved admits is gibberish. The couple is played by Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw, who in their almost painful natural beauty were perfect for the roles. Both O’Neal and McGraw struggled to elongate their resultant success in the early ‘70s, and some who have made a career out of parsing movies for artistic efficacy have attributed this to the absence of a certain je ne sais quoi behind their soft perfect faces. Now, at 74 and 76, after decades of battles with different kinds of abuses, the pair have missed their boats for the sort of heroic comeback bouts often steered to awards or a second ubiquity. But there they were at Harvard earlier this year, sharing a table to read an epistolary play about doomed lovers in which very little astringent or challenging material intrudes.
We were informed in the intro to the Dallas tour edition, which began last night, about the ceremonial reception McGraw and O’Neal were given when they landed, presented respectively with a cowboy hat and yellow roses. (O’Neal appeared to struggle mildly with his digestive condition during the early part of the performance, so one wonders what ended up getting picked as Big D’s gastronomic ambassador once they left the airport.) And indeed, as they walk out to take their places before the spiral notebooks placed to ensure eternally flawless performance, the effect is that of two royals from a cut-above order taking their gracious place among the regular folk. For a surprisingly brisk hour and a half, McGraw and O’Neal never leave their thrones, never turn away, with McGraw looking facing up and emoting at about 70%, double O’Neal’s wattage. They are apt to stumble a line here and there, and though it will happen but a few times it entails a flash of exposure to the fact that they’re reading. Yet Love Letters needs little else. Who’ll see this show for anything outside the persons reading it? Who cares what happens?
The play itself is actually pretty respectable. From a volley of tentative salutations before either kid has broken double digits age-wise, notes are recited and traded without breaks, except when one of the two correspondents is hedging out of offense, fear or preoccupation. Melissa Gardner is a free spirit and born painter, politically ahead of the guard, who forges a bond with gentle, prim, rich sprout Andrew Makepeace Ladd III that staggers between avuncular and desirous as each tick through the years and, accomplishments and failures and romances even more doomed than their own. O’Neal, thick and gruff with age, is naturally charming deadpanning the boy Andrew’s sweet naïveté. McGraw, wearing nearly eight decades like they’re nothing, is possessed by a schoolteacher’s presentational enthusiasm, and she executes each line with the same ingratiating wonder. Her character grazes by some dark stuff, and the disparity between her natural ebullience and her matter-of-fact handling of this content drew a gasp or two. Both actors are pros, doing a visible heap of careful detail work even while securely supine.
The ending would be abrupt if it weren’t such a softball, and either way sashays across heavy tragedy without a lot of sock. But the audience was poised for their standing ovation, and O’Neal and McGraw accepted it with patient grace, though you could tell they weren’t sure themselves if they’d earned a response of quite that magnitude. After fistfuls of bashful seconds, O’Neal gestured around their little table to McGraw for a genial hug, an embrace much like the ones they’ve staged for the press pictures, upon which they left the stage – the ritual complete, the curiosity satisfied. In the slick resplendence of the Winspear, the opulent memory of the chandelier retraction barely less than fresh, that Love Letters had been an even balder-faced con than Love Story was arguable, albeit not to those of us who hadn’t paid to see it. But there wasn’t a molecule of cynicism in the theatre. Two vintage Hollywood gems, only slightly dusky with age, had just engaged in a sublime act of generosity by entertaining us, fifty years of professional canny between them, going far beyond the simple request of sharing a room again.
ATT Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House
2403 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201
Through April 3, 2016
For ticket info, dates. Show times, etc.: http://www.attpac.org/on-sale/2016/love-letters/