"Love Letters," the two-person play by A. R. Gurney that opened last night as -- perhaps -- the final production of the Avalon Theater Company, is about love and letters, only tangentially about Love Letters. With Larry Mabrey and his real-life wife, Erin Kelley, as the cast, it runs through the weekend at the Crestwood Mall. A week later, the mall will close and evict the various artistic and cultural communities who have brought joy and laughter to the shrunken halls of what once was known as "Crestwood Plaza, where the Big Stores Are."
"Love Letters," which has been around since the late 1980s, is a gimmick, but also a piece of theater that connects. Two actors, portraying Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, sit at a table and read a half-century's worth of letters, cards, invitations and the like between a pair of wealthy New England WASPs who were, for lack of a better word, friends who warily circled one another, like moths around a flame, each too cautious to get too close.
It's a charming evening, directed simply and graciously by Joneal Joplin. Like a lot of wealthy, privileged children of the 20th century, they are both pushed together and pulled apart by parents, schools and teachers. They neck in parked cars and campus clothes closets, they go to dances and drink too much. They proceed earnestly in their pre-ordained directions, fueled by trust funds and taught to have social consciences, at least in public.
Andy and Melissa meet in second grade, stay in touch with letters. He likes to write them; she hates it. He goes private prep school and plays hockey, then on to Yale, to the Navy in World War II, to Harvard Law School, to a white-shoe New York law firm, to the New York legislature and the U. S. Senate. She is expelled from a variety of schools, she loves, as the saying goes, "not wisely but too well," and she drinks.
When they do see one another, at a Harvard-Yale football game or another similar occasion when expectations and nervousness are high, the date turns out to be a disaster on one or another level.
Mabrey and Kelley are excellent. He's stuffy and preachy; she's snarky and easily angered. Long pauses follow, but their feelings are too strong, and contact is re-made. Life is not easy for either of them, and even if it were easier, they are not prepared for it. Gurney understands the people he writes about, and he is a skilled enough writer that his plays transcend the upper classes of lower New England and speak to everyone.
And, as the Avalon Theatre Company goes on hiatus, Mabrey and Kelley will be associated with the new Grand Center Arts Academy where, perhaps, the Avalon banner will fly over Midtown some day. They gave St. Louis some very good theater in a variety of locations and I look forward to their return.
Love Letters by A. R. Gurney opened last night at the Art Space in the Crestwood Mall and will play through Sunday.