Playwright A. R. Gurney is a native Buffalonian whose two-character play “Love Letters” has been shown in Buffalo many times over the past twenty-five years and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1990. Buffalo is happy to host the newest cast of “Love Letters,” Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, who offer their rendition of this time-honored play for their two-week stay, together for the first time in 45 years. Their national tour started in 2015.
Actors love to be cast in “Love Letters.” It requires little rehearsal time. They do not need to memorize their lines; they merely read the letters which they hold, alternating between the two characters on stage. The play was first shown in 1989 at the off-Broadway Promenade Theatre where it ran for 64 performances and starred Kathleen Turner and John Rubinstein. Each week, a different cast performed in the production. Since its inception in 1989, over 100 actors and actresses have performed in “Love Letters” throughout the country and overseas.
Ali MacGraw - Wikimedia
A Long-Term Friendship
It is obvious that Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal have a great warmth and admiration for each other. It comes across when they are together. Theirs is one of the longest standing friendships on the Hollywood scene, starting from their screen romance in “Love Story” in 1970.
Neither one had a relaxed or contented experience in show business. Ryan O’Neal’s career faltered for a while after “Love Story.” Ali MacGraw starred in only three films before taking a five-year break from acting to raise her son Josh. Each of them had personal struggles and health crises. Ali had an alcohol addiction which she overcame. Their lives and their families suffered from close scrutiny by the media.
A Two-Character Cast
There are only two characters in the play, Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, who sit side by side at a table, recounting their hopes and dreams and all the circumstances that have occurred in their separate lives. They have known each other since they were in the second grade. Each comes from a well-to-do family and started exchanging birthday thank-you notes and vacation postcards fifty years ago. Andrew prefers this type of communication but Melissa would favor phone calls. The audience listens as Andrew and Melissa read letters they exchanged from 1937 to 1987. Melissa likes to remind Andrew that her family was the richer.
Their correspondence takes in their boarding school and college years. It is clear from the outset that Andrew and Melissa get together at times and often talk on the phone, but their main communication and deepest connection is through their letters.
Their Lives Take a Different Turn
Andrew studied at Yale and then law school, while Melissa attended a series of select schools with very little motivation. They have a romantic relationship, but Melissa married someone else when Andrew went off to war. They continue to keep in touch even when Andrew becomes an attorney, dabbles in politics and is elected to the Senate.
At the same time, Melissa’s marriage flounders, she becomes a heavy drinker, and is estranged from her children. Late in their life, Melissa and Andrew had a brief affair which did not last.
The most poignant part of the play concerns Andrew’s last letter, which he wrote to Melissa’s mother after Melissa’s unexpected death. He told Mrs. Gardener how much the two had meant to each other over the years even though they saw each other so seldom. It was their letters which formed the unbreakable bond which tied them together forever.
Ryan O'Neal - Wikimedia
Ali MacGraw who plays Melissa in the current national tour was born in Westchester Country, New York in 1939, which would make her 77 years old at this point. A remarkable woman! She was first seen on the big screen in “Goodbye, Columbus” for which she won a Golden Globe Award. Her breakout film was “Love Story” for which she won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. The movie was based upon the best-selling novel of the same name, written by Erich Segal. Prior to her film career, Ali attended Wellesley College where she studied art history, languages and literature. She was married to two different Hollywood successes, Robert Evans and Steve McQueen. Ali makes her home in in New Mexico and is involved in numerous social, animal and environmental causes.
Ryan O’Neal was born in Los Angeles in 1941 and originally trained to be a boxer. He began his acting career in 1964 when he was cast in the television show “Peyton Place.” His big break came in 1970 when he was chosen for the lead in “Love Story” opposite Ali MacGraw. He received nominations for the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for his role in the film. He has been married twice and has four children, but is known mostly for his long-term relationship with Farrah Fawcett with whom he had a son.
Erich Segal - Wikimedia
Playwright A. R. Gurney
The playwright A. R. Gurney, known as “Pete,” was born in Buffalo in 1930. He attended the Nichols School in Buffalo and graduated from St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. In 1952, he graduated from Williams College, and became an officer in the Navy. Upon his return to civilian life, he attended the Yale School of Drama, from which he graduated in 1958. He taught literature for many years at MIT before he began writing full time. Gurney uses his own patrician background to create the theme in many of his plays, of upper-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) life in America. In addition to “Love Letters,” Gurney has had success with several of his other plays, including “The Dining Room,” “The Cocktail Hour,” “Sylvia,” and “Ancestral Voices.” He has been married to his wife Molly for 57 years, and has four children and eight grandchildren. They live in Roxbury, Connecticut and in New York City.
Despite the fact that Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal came to play “Love Letters” with minute stage experience, they both admit that they have loved every minute of the tour. It is the perfect vehicle for their wonderful friendship and rapport.