Two different plays on epistolary affairs make for a surprisingly romantic evening
In matters of the heart, the medium is— once again—the message. There really is a difference whether you speak to your beloved on paper or on the screen. In an inspired pairing of two longish one-act plays written 20 years apart, A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters and Billy Van Zandt and Jane Millmore’s You’ve Got Hate Mail, Not Another Theater Company shows us the difference. When we have words on paper, we have a romance that endures for 50 years. But try to put that romance into e-mail, and you get a black farce brimming with riotous chaos. NATC says the pairing, now at the Locker Room Sports Bar’s Fire and Ice Banquet Hall, is designed to coincide with St. Valentine’s Day, but the cascade of laughter arrives in spades rather than hearts.
Gurney’s Love Letters is by far the betterknown of the two and although widely performed, it has not worn out its welcome. Part of its appeal to different companies is that it’s so easy to produce: The players can wear their own clothes, sit down and then read all the lines. The cream of American stage and screen has risen to Letters, often with unlikely pairings, such as Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones. Even more often the casting brings together married couples. The veteran community theater performers appearing this time are Nora O’Dea and Dan Stevens, with Cathy Greer English and Mark English in alternate performances, such as the one at a Feb. 4 preview at ArtRage Gallery. Meanwhile, Binaifer and Navroz Dabu appear in all performances of You’ve Got Hate Mail.
The two characters in Love Letters, Melissa Gardiner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd II, are about playwright Gurney’s age (born 1930) and hail from his ethnicity and his social class as a privileged WASP. Their letters run from the late 1930s, when they are children, until right up to the time the play was written, 1988, about five years before the advent of e-mail. Citing a common theme in Gurney plays, Melissa and Andy are first “dancing partners,” a now extinct Episcopalian custom in which a young man would hold a young woman in his arms and dance with her, but put aside warmer feelings. Immediate differences strike the viewer, Andy is a bit of a stuffed shirt, but Melissa, who hates to write, is an insouciant free spirit.
Melissa writes to Andy, “You’re always doing the right thing—all the time.” And more teasingly, given her abilities as an artist, “I’ve drawn pictures of us with our bathing suits off. Can you tell the difference?” Despite such an unpromising relationship, the two seize one opportunity for lovemaking in a seedy hotel during college, where, ahem, Andy cannot perform. He pleads to Melissa that she should check with another girl to see whether his failure is usual.
Gurney is by no means a gag writer, but he has a Noel Coward-like talent to amuse. Such lines may not look like much on the page, but with the timing of practiced performers, they strike sparks again and again.
The two remain linked as their lives diverge. Andy goes to Yale, becomes a successful lawyer, marries well and goes into politics. Melissa marries badly, fails at several endeavors, but never loses her sass. Some of Gurney’s choicest writing comes in the years of difference, as with Andy’s smug, self-congratulatory Christmas letter, which hides such ugly news as his kids being druggie losers.
Andy and Melissa do not become an item until they are middle-aged, and these upright Protestants begin to think about adultery as the bond to link their hearts. They can meet in distant cities while he is on “business.” But because telephone calls to his office must be logged, and are open to scrutiny, they return to letters that are routed through the discreet and compliant Miss Walpole in Andy’s office. From Miss Walpole’s point of view, Andy must look like a tawdry cheating husband, like the exploitive J.D. Sheldrake in Promises, Promises. From Gurney’s view this is the real thing, a love that took decades of overcoming differences and obstacles to be fulfilled.
Mark English gets his best responses from his understatement of Andy’s bigotries: “We don’t have many Catholics at our school, and they’re not very smart.” The more experienced Cathy Greer English soars with Melissa’s naughtiness, and nudges laughs out of Andy’s responses through highly animated listening.
Whereas the world of Gurney is refined and polite, that of Billy Van Zandt and Jane Millmore is raucous and profane. The prolific duo has been dubbed the “king and queen of New Jersey dinner theater,” where their works have flourished for decades. Little-known in these parts, their Love Sex and the I.R.S. appeared at Cortland Repertory Theatre in July 1997. Other sample titles are Bathroom Humor and The Senator Wore Pantyhose. In advertisements for You’ve Got Hate Mail, Van Zandt and Millmore spell out that they intend their venture to be seen in tandem with Love Letters. Nobody writes anything on paper this time.
At the beginning of the action, we are faced by five people at laptops, with the covers turned toward us. They begin talking as they pound on their keyboards, and for the first while at least, where they sit does not signal their relationship to one another.
In one corner we have randy executive Richard (Navroz Dabu), who sometimes holds a G-string in his hand as he tries to hustle the hot-to-trot receptionist Wanda (Binaifer Dabu) sitting in the other corner. Then again, maybe she’s hustling him, because she thinks his marriage is a dud, and she’d like to live in the mansion with him instead of his cool-tochilly wife Stephanie (Crystal Roupas), sitting between them. Wanda reports to Richard how various private body parts respond to the very thought of him. She signs her messages, “XXXOOOV.” “What’s the V for?” Richard asks. “Those are my upturned legs waiting for you, baby,” she messages back.
It doesn’t take long before the adulterers commit the kind of bloopers we all did in the early days of e-mail, like sending private messages to All-users and damaging ones to precisely the people who should not see them. Accelerating Richard’s problems is Stephanie’s mischievous lawyer friend Peg (Pam Shay Hipius), who hacks into the adulterers’ accounts and sends vehement attacks under each other’s names. Stephanie soon knows everything and speaks condescendingly about her rival Wanda: “I’ll bet she uses the rest room at the Port Authority bus station.”
Some of this may sound like classic farce reset on the Internet, but Van Zandt and Millmore have about a dozen more tricks and plot twists in their bag. Some of them concern the obliging techie, George (Dustin Czarny), who likes to forward pictures of naked women with Hillary Clinton’s head imposed on them.
Director Greg Hipius demonstrates a flair for farce, keeping up the tradition of NATC’s premiere production of Run for Your Wife, and his pacing here is mile-a-minute, even without slamming doors. Every member of his cast delivers the laughs, but the honors go to the husband-wife team of Navroz Dabu, previously known as a set designer, and everscowling Binaifer Dabu, who gets half of her hilarity in measured, well-timed reactions to the absurdity around her. Isn’t there an old Parsee proverb somewhere that says that sharing laughter is the start of making love?
This production runs through Feb. 19.
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