Almost immediately after the play was first produced, it became a vehicle for pairings of well-known actors who reveled in the opportunity to simply sit on stage together, read their scripts, and emote. Like the current Off-Broadway production of The Exonerated, the casts changed often, with celebrity players coming and going as their busy schedules allowed. But talk about quick changes: Right now, at the Duplex Cabaret Theater, a different pair of actors reads the play once each week. The opportunity to see a variety of performers tackle these roles in quick succession provides a rare glimpse of the actor's art seen through the prism of A.R. Gurney's pistol of an epistolary play.
Make no mistake about it, the cast makes a difference; your experience of the production will vary depending upon who plays each part of this elegant two-hander. Yet the structure, the story, and the actual lines are so well-wrought that the piece itself finally becomes the star. The story is told in a series of letters written throughout a lifetime between two members of Gurney's favorite group of folk, the WASP elite. As children, Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner begin a relationship that takes them through the discoveries of childhood, the disappointments of adolescence, the awkwardness of first sex, the intoxication of ambition, the acceptance of dreams unfulfilled, and the belated understanding that there is no tomorrow. All of this in one play with two actors reading letters.
Early in this run of the play at The Duplex, you could have seen pairings such as Randy Graff and Lonny Price or Alison Fraser and Stephen Bogardus. One of the more tantalizing casts had Charles Busch (in drag) playing opposite Jim Dale. It was no stunt: Busch played Melissa as a grand dame filled with a certain hauteur, Dale countered by making his character's feelings clear even when the letters he read were emotionally impassive. Despite its star power, this pairing did not capture the tremendous sense of loss engendered by the play's ending, but the actors did bring fresh line readings to any number of scenes because Busch's approach to Melissa was so original and Dale ever so nimbly adjusted.
The official opening night pairing consisted of Kristy Cates and Phil Geoffrey Bond. Cates starred in the Off-Broadway show Boobs: The Musical and will understudy Idina Menzel in the Broadway production of the musical Wicked opening this Fall. Bond is the artistic director of the Storefront Theatre, which presented this run of Love Letters, and he also directed each cast. In that capacity, he's had the enviable advantage of observing what has (and has not) worked in front of the Duplex audience each Monday night, and he has used that knowledge to good effect in his own performance and in his direction of Cates.
Possessing the patrician good looks one might associate with the young Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, Bond portrays the character with a dry wit camouflaged by a Buster Keaton-like stone face. A man who hides behind his letters, unable to show his true feelings in the flesh, Andy is also a man who best expresses his emotions on the printed page. Bond's smartest decision as both actor and director is to trust the text; rather than imposing his own persona upon Gurney's words, he lets the language infuse his character with a deliciously complicated ardor for Melissa. Andy's life-long attraction to her is something that he himself doesn't truly understand, so Bond's innocent reactions are true to the character and therefore elicit sympathetic laughter from the audience.
We've been following the burgeoning career of Kristy Cates since she began performing in New York. This tall, attractive blonde is well matched to play against Bond; by nature, she is warm where he is cool. She plays a rebellious rich girl who knows in her soul that Andy is the right man for her but also realizes that, at a crucial moment in their young lives, they missed their chance to be together. The easiest mistake an actress can make in playing Melissa is overcompensating for Andy Ladd's distance. Cates does not make that mistake; she gives a carefully modulated performance in which her feelings about Andy wax and wane with the ups and downs of her life, and she is heartbreakingly real.
There are three more performances of Love Letters on tap. Each was to have had a different cast, but the Leslie Kritzer/Seth Rudetsky pairing had to be replaced when both performers got jobs out of town. That gives you a chance to see Bond and Cates in a return engagement on Monday, September 8 at 7pm. Tonya Pinkins and Jerry Dixon (September 15) and Karen Mason and Andrew Lippa (September 22) will follow them on subsequent Monday nights.