For her latest play, Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again, now premiering at Yale Repertory Theatre, Sarah Ruhl essentially seems to have taken a highlighter to the poets' complete correspondence, which was published as the 900-plus page collection Words in Air in 2008. While dramatizing the postal exchanges conducted over the pair's 30-year friendship is undeniably a challenge, Ruhl's own penchant for whimsy doesn't always serve the material, and it is compounded here by director Les Waters' unfortunate choice of concretizing the imagery that crops up in the letters and poems whenever feasible.
For most of the show, Bishop (a nicely astringent Mary Beth Fisher) and Lowell (an insufficiently Brahminized Jefferson Mays) sit side by side at a desk declaiming, paper in hand. From her first praiseful overture in 1947, congratulating Lowell on a trio of prestigious prizes, through a late letter chastising him for mining his ex-wife's private correspondence, Bishop's letters had a slightly schoolmarmish tone. Cursed with an inability to tell a lie ("even for art"), Bishop would pick apart the drafts he sent her, and Lowell, ever ready with a colorful, if self-mocking anecdote – would return the favor. In later years, Lowell -- the survivor of three marriages and countless affairs -- grew outright flirtatious, perhaps emboldened by Bishop's proven preference for women.
Every so often, the actors leave their chairs for a bit of physical business, such as Lowell collapsing on the floor to indicate yet another blackout or breakdown, or, during one ascent into mania, opening a panel in the wall and climbing onto an illuminated moon. Waters also relies on what's fast becoming the cliché stage effect du jour: When matters lag, he (literally) floods the floorboards.
For long stretches, the text alone is colorful enough to sustain our interest. However, even poets are prone to the kind of grandiose bonhomie that written correspondence can engender. There's a surfeit of mutual praise, along with way too much extending of invitations to wherever these peripatetic writers might be at the time (Yaddo, Maine, Italy, Brazil). Soon, these status reports get tiresome, occluding the occasional verbal gems.
Perhaps the work's biggest flaw is that there is so little character development on view. Nothing really exerts an emotional grip on the audience until Bishop runs into trouble with her Brazilian partner, the tempestuous Lota de Macedo Soares. It's only after Bishop writes "One Art" ("The art of losing isn't hard to master…") that Fisher really latches onto her role and carries us along.
As it stands, Dear Elizabeth might at best inspire a foray into the massive tome that serves as its inspiration – or perhaps (as Ruhl appears to have done) simply lead one to read Dan Chiasson's New Yorker review of the book.