In memory of noted playwright A. R. Gurney, a consistent contributor to the Westport Playhouse stage, a one-night-only fund-raiser of his classic play Love Letters will take place on April 12, starring megastar Alec Baldwin and Tony Award winner Kelli O’Hara.
Gurney, who had 21 works produced at the Playhouse from 1980 through 2016, died last summer at the age of 86. The $250 per ticket Spring Gala will honor the memory of the man whose friends called him “Pete.”
“We are all excited about this fund-raiser and so grateful Alec is coming out,” O’Hara said. “I’m sure we will have a lot of fun.”
Directed by Playhouse artistic director Mark Lamos, the play’s story is one any romantic will love. When Andrew accepts an invitation to Melissa’s birthday party, and she writes a thank-you note, a correspondence is born that will last more than 50 years. Though their relationship constantly changes, these pen pals remain each other’s most trusted confidantes.
Their letters tell how much they really meant to each other over the years — physically apart, perhaps, but spiritually close. As Baldwin and O’Hara read the letters out loud, they will create an evocative, touching, frequently funny but always telling pair of character studies in which what is implied is as revealing and meaningful as what is actually written down.
“It’s a perfect tribute to Pete’s memory because it celebrates theatrical simplicity, which was his passion,” Lamos said. “There’s a kind of minimalism to his best work, an economy. He couldn’t bear the overblown theatrical gesture, the overwritten line or casts that were too large. He also disliked plays that insist on a wide range of settings. In these qualities he’s like Samuel Beckett and Jane Austen.”
Moreover, Lamos has always felt the play had large parts of the playwright and his wife, Molly’s, long relationship embedded in it.
“As I got to know them both over the years, that fact seemed lovely and obvious to me, though, of course, I never brought it up,” he said. “Love Letters distills Gurney’s style and his subject matter — the New England WASP subculture — perfectly.”
One of the amazing things about “Love Letters” is that it can be read by a wide variety of actors, all of whom bring something very personal to it. Lamos was thrilled to get Baldwin and O’Hara for this version.
“Alec has a suavity and directness that is the spine of his character; he’s also very subtle and can get a laugh with amazing honesty,” he said. “Kelli has a smart, preppy, mischievous quality that is right for the woman. Actors who have done a lot of musical theater are some of the finest. I love working with them on so-called ‘straight’ material because they trust the words and bring effortless breadth and nuance. Both Kelli and Alec are also, of course, so charismatic on stage, too. That, combined with so much technique and talent, never hurts.”
Over the last 35 years, Baldwin has left his mark in movies, TV and the stage. He’s been nominated for a Tony for A Streetcar Named Desire and an for Oscar for The Cooler. He has won three Emmy awards and three Golden Globes for his role on NBC-TV’s 30 Rock.
One of Broadway’s most in-demand leading ladies, O’Hara has been nominated for six Tony Awards, winning in 2015 for her portrayal of Anna Leonowens in the Broadway revival of The King and I. She will soon reprise that role in the West End transfer of the musical this summer.
Lamos believes audiences respond so deeply to “Love Letters” because it is about something that is so central to all of us: a relationship, a partnering.
“But then it’s also about what might have been. It’s about what we settle for and what we regret,” he said. “There’s a bittersweet quality to the play, threaded into the humor and the characterizations. We all find ourselves in it. That’s what great writing does: the very specificity of these two quirky WASPs makes them universal. Jane Austen’s characters have the same effect on us.”
Gurney is the most-produced playwright at Westport Playhouse during its 87-year history, and it even presented a couple of premieres, with the playwright generous with royalties from one of them, sharing them with the Playhouse. Lamos noted it’s only fitting that they honor his memory and said the show will offer the audience a great deal.
“They can expect 90 minutes of delicious, moving, observant, rueful theater performed/read with great feeling by two marvelous actors at the top of their games,” Lamos said. “And they can pat themselves on the back for assisting the Playhouse financially by buying a ticket.”
Tickets to the Playhouse’s Spring Gala are $250 and the proceeds will benefit the non-profit theater, now in its 88th season. For more information, visit westportplayhouse.org.