First Nighter: A. R. Gurney's "Love Letters," Walter Anderson's "Almost Home"

Is Love Letters A. R Gurney's most lucrative play? No one seems to be quite sure, but it has to be up there among the prolific playwright's biggest money earners. Look, it has a built-in gimmick that encourages actors to want to participate. Since it bowed in 1989, many have.

After all, they don't need to memorize a thing. For the two-hander, they merely come out on stage, sit down on two chairs at a shared table and begin reading from binders in front of them. They handily flip pages as they go about chronicling the barely requited epistolary romance between Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner.

So here Love Letters comes again, at the Brooks Atkinson, with a new (or slightly rearranged) cast more or less appearing every month for as long as business thrives--the first duo being Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow.

As we know, epistolary novels were a big thing in the 18th century, but epistolary plays not so much then or now. (Some 50 years ago, Brian Aherne and Katharine Cornell toured in Dear Liar, reading letters exchanged between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell.) So expectations for Gurney's Love Letters--other than as a showcase for marquee-name thespians wanting a relatively easy theater credit--wouldn't have initially seemed to run high.

Yet, viewed from this later date in Gurney's career, it looks as if Love Letters--if not definitely his biggest revenue turner--is decidedly one of his best works. Whereas in too many of his clever, slickly written pieces about WASP culture, he often retreats from digging deeply into his character's emotions (cf. his Wayside Motor Inn, currently revived at the Signature Theatre), he goes way beneath the surface where Andy and Melissa are concerned.

Well-off Northeastern children at the start--Melissa is proud to say she's richer than he--who meet in second grade and take instantly to each other, they correspond for the next 40 years. Though, it's clear their families would like a formal union (and the audience starts off longing for it, too), they never tie the knot with each other.

Instead, they marry others, while Yale-Harvard law school graduate Andrew rises to the United States Senate and Melissa, who becomes an artist of intermediate accomplishments, becomes an alcoholic like her mother and increasingly loses her bearings. With the years and the letters and wives and husbands and children accumulating and Andy and Melissa falling in and out of contact with each other and continually misinterpreting each other's written signals, Gurney shapes a heart-breaking and utterly credible history for them.

As the first players, Dennehy and Farrow--wearing what look like their own street clothes, though Jane Greenwood is the credited costumer--are highly effective, if in different ways. (Carol Burnett follows joining Dennehy, then Alan Alda and Candace Bergen, Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg, Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen through early 2015.)

Dennehy, who hardly looks up from his script, gives a straightforward account of straight arrow and Arrow Collar Andy. He reads the letters strictly as if Andy is writing them. Often given to bombastic interpretations, Dennehy avoids those entirely to become the elite, enlightened man only too late realizing his hewing to the proper path may have kept him from living out his true passions.

Farrow does look up from her script, and often. She reads the letter as if she's feeling them. Sometimes stammering over words like "a-a-a-and" and "I-I-I," which isn't as they'd appear on the page, she emotes--and increasingly as Melissa's psychological troubles mount. Her facial expressions alter constantly. Actually, Melissa is the more exacting role, and Farrow is so good in it, an observer wonders whether any of her successors will make as much of it.

Set from 1937-1977 or thereabouts and rich in details (who still uses the period phrase "hacking around"?), Love Letters operates under a somewhat ironic title. Yes, these are love letters but for a love affair that only occurs tangentially, a love affair that could never have truly worked out. Gurney's presenting it as honestly as he does is a large plume in his writer's cap.
When Johnny Barnett (Jonny Orsini) comes marching home in Walter Anderson's effective Almost Home, at the Acorn, he gets the 1965 hurrahs from mom Grace (Karen Ziemba) and pop Harry (Joe Lisi), but they're muted and don't last long.

Almost before Grace has scrambled a few eggs for the marine, a wounded Vietnam veteran, to scarf up hungrily in no time flat, he's caught in a tug-of-war between her wanting him to go to college, as he's inclined to do, and Harry's being convinced Johnny should take the drill instructor position for which he's in line if he reenlists.

There's a third party with plans for Johnny. Police captain Nick Pappas (James McCaffrey) of the 47th Precinct in the Bronx is set on the lad's becoming a cop assigned to Internal Affairs Bureau duties. The catch is that Pappas is a corrupt officer, who's already got Harry under his thumb (a brief opening scene set in 1958 shows how and why) and now expects to have Johnny informing him about internal affairs activities.

Anderson reveals the tense fight for Johnny's future in an 80-minute kitchen-sink drama. (Yes, designer Harry Feiner includes a sink, along with fridge, table, chairs and a pint-sized Christmas tree, on a set that may have some observers recalling Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners look.)

Also pulled into the hot discussion is Luisa Jones (Brenda Pressley), a schoolteacher neighbor who taught Johnny and agrees with Grace and him about the benefits of a college education.

As the four of them tussle over what Johnny will eventually do, the recent and more distant past comes to light. Minimizing his psychic wounds--Johnny was with childhood best friend at his death on the battlefield--the demobbed soldier only slowly comes to acknowledge his pain. Just as hesitantly, Harry agrees to unburden himself of the World War II memories he's long refused to confide in his wife and son. Where he'll stand in regards to Pappas's manipulations is another element in Anderson's gritty piece.

Perhaps the playwright--also a Vietnam vet and former Marine sergeant (Johnny wears sergeant's stripes on his uniform as well as his ribbons for valor)--holds his work to 80 minutes because he realizes the Vietnam drama is familiar territory and, as a consequence, he needn't linger over it.

Actually, the very compact presentation is one of its strengths. Anderson doesn't prolong the father's ands son's revelations. In particular, he makes it movingly clear that their familial affection hasn't become so irreversibly obscured that it's unable to resurface.

(Show mavens keeping a tally on plays in which a son is placed uncomfortably between two parents who simultaneously love each other but argue continually may immediately be put in mind of Frank D. Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses.)

With Michael Parva directing them along Anderson's crisp and pungent lines, the actors maximize the play's potential. Orsini, who was so endearing in The Nance, displays a different range of repressed emotions. Lisi and McCaffrey, although paced a trifle haltingly in a couple of precinct scenes, get their rough edges right. Pressley does teacher-dignity properly.

And a special word about Ziemba, who only weeks ago was tapping her heart out in Bullets Over Broadway. An award-winning song-and-dance performer for many years (the Tony for Contact), she's been making a transition to straight plays.

Last year, she was a boisterous bar owner in a revival of Anita Loos's 1946 Helen Hayes vehicle, Happy Birthday. Now she's the Bronx-accented Grace and succeeding completely. She does sing a snatch of Paige Morton's popular Chock Full O' Nuts jingle, but she doesn't follow it with a tap break.

More power to her and to Almost Home.