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Brainy WASPs Failing at Love 

Love Letters deserves an audience

Once or twice before the current version of Love Letters opened up in NoDa, I had seen A.R. Gurney's pocket tragicomedy in concert reading versions. Each time, I was hesitant to watch Gurney's decorous Brahmin couple frittering away their lives without fulfilling their mutual adoration. And on each occasion, I've returned homewards surprised by how well I liked the piece. I was really hesitant this time. Love Letters was a relatively late entry in Off-Tryon Theatre Company's schedule, replacing Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced in the lineup months after the season had begun. Off-Tryon, which had produced Corpus Christie, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, American Buffalo and Baltimore Waltz earlier this year, did not seem like an ideal temperamental match for this comparatively bland porridge. Nor were Glenn Griffin and Christy Basa the names that popped instantly to mind as actors I'd wish to see as Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner.

As it turns out, Off-Tryon chose well on several counts. It takes just a couple of days to whip a presentable Love Letters into shape. Just assemble a pair of scripts, a pair of lecterns, a pair of savvy performers, stage a rehearsal or two, and you're ready to roll. Glasses of water are optional.

Off-Tryon goes beyond the basics. Company managing director John Hartness has decreed that wife Suzy design a full-fledged set for this production. Directing this two-hander, he has also required Griffin and Basa to learn their lines. So for the first time in its history, you can call an Off-Tryon effort lavish and ultra-polished.

When high-profile celebs portray the US Senator and his controversial artist girlfriend, the opening epistolary exchanges, when Senator Andy and Melissa are just grade-schoolers, strike us as a charming, disarming surprise. We admire a megastar's willingness to regress back to childhood, but we're unlikely to truly believe what we see.

Griffin and Basa come closer. The conspiratorial mischief of childhood chums, the pettiness, the enthusiasm, and the exaggerated dignity and sensitivity are all captured. Hartness has his youngsters sitting scrunched-up in their chairs, feet off the ground, when we first see them. A nice touch.

Camaraderie comes early for our correspondents. Chemistry comes much later. A number of factors keep the intimates apart, beginning with Andy's father, who disapproves of his less-pedigreed friend. Then there's college, his service in the Vietnam War, her marriage, his marriage, and finally his high position of public trust.

But it's probably the rejection of Melissa by Andrew II -- and Andrew III's acquiescence to it -- that settles the trajectory of these interesting, intertwined lives. Andy's is as straight as the straight-arrow he is: Yale Law School, Law Review, internship at the Supreme Court, job at prestigious law firm, partnership, marriage, family, and US Senate. Melissa has her ups and downs. At times, her art meets with critical approval; at others, she's reviled. Sometimes, she believes in what she's doing; and sometimes, she doesn't.

She veers from painting to sculpture, from sobriety to alcoholism. Melissa's boozing destroys her marriage, costs her custody of her kids - and ultimately their love. By the time Melissa and Andy finally click as lovers, he's running for a second Senate term and can't absorb the budding scandal politically. So he returns to the wife and kids, and he tells Melissa that they must cool it romantically.

It was decades of letter writing that sustained the Andrew/Melissa friendship long enough for the physical chemistry to become right. Ironically, the promise of continued correspondence now makes it easier for Andy to sever those same physical ties.

Basa has come far as an actress since her days as a UNCC student, giving by far her best performance ever in Charlotte. Reading lines from a letter isn't exactly the same as speaking to the person you're addressing, and Basa beautifully preserves the difference. Her reactions to the letters are exquisitely alert and apt.

Griffin is also in peak form as Andrew. He does an even better job than Basa in registering the effect of Melissa's letters as we hear them and aging from schoolboy to statesman. But of course, the point when Ladd and Gardner become the subject of newspaper articles is precisely where the charisma of megastar actors would be most useful.

So yes, a more concentrated effort to make Griffin look senatorial toward the end -- rimless reading glasses, perhaps -- and turning Basa's Melissa into more of a snippy bohemian would be helpful. But the truth is, Off-Tryon's Love Letters is not at all in desperate need for improvement. I'm not sure it connects with the core audience that the company has developed. This version does connect powerfully with Gurney's script, triumphantly embracing its quirky epistolary style, and following through with an ending that's impressively poignant.

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