Later this week, famed actor Brian Dennehy will say goodbye to his life-long love in exchange for another woman, both of whom are named Melissa. To be specific, it's on stage where Dennehy will make this switch, in Broadway's Love Letters -- where he transforms from Brian to "Andy" in an intentionally staged "reading" that tells a love story through letters between his character and that of Melissa.
The two Melissa's are themselves extremely famous too -- Mia Farrow and Carol Burnett, who are part of the production's rotating cast scheduled to welcome other A-list talent including Alan Alda, Martin Sheen, Anjelica Huston and Candice Bergen. However, Dennehy has the unique distinction of being the only actor in the production who will perform his role with two different co-stars.
Last week, I spent some time discussing this distinction with Dennehy to get his perspective on the emotional and insightful play, as well as on switching co-stars mid-run.
What makes these performances especially unique is that unlike standard plays, Love Letters is presented as a stage reading. Both actors appear on a bare stage (presumably as themselves), take a seat at a nondescript table and proceed to read from a script for approximately 90 minutes.
"You have several hundred people sitting there, and two people on stage essentially describing two lives by virtue of their communications with each other," Dennehy says about how this form of storytelling extends to the audience. "The emotional and rational experiences that these two people go through from early in their love to virtually the end are recounted in 90 minutes, with great humor, understanding, logic, and tremendous dramatic effect. Very few members of the audience feel cheated by this experience."
In addition to the work itself, audience members are seemingly satisfied to also view these acclaimed actors on stage -- presumably picking those they most like to see from the rotating schedule of performers, with its first turn this weekend.
What's interesting, however, is that instead of spending his days with Burnett and his nights with Farrow, confessing their love through letters, Dennehy explained that this piece goes surprisingly unrehearsed. Instead they read it through a couple of times but leave the development and growth to occur before the audience.
"That's deliberate," Dennehy says, "It's a piece that's discovered, and it's discovered in front of an audience, which is the way it should be. This style, this show, allows you to do things that just aren't done in theater."
Part of that discovery will undoubtedly be how the interpretation of the role of Melissa varies from one actress to the next. Burnett, who has performed Love Letters with Dennehy in the past, "plays that kid who comes out of a rich family and rebels against everything. Not as a mean-spirited person, but just as a person who finds it all kind of funny, and kind of ridiculous."
In all the riches and opportunities afforded to her by wealth, Dennehy says about Burnett's interpretation, "everything becomes a rebellious act. And Carol being Carol... she's very very funny, and then of course it all becomes very tragic as she realizes she can't seem to break away from the person that she was raised to be, so that she can completely find herself."
Farrow on the other hand, who Dennehy describes an "an amazing actress... and an extraordinary, beautiful woman," has already been playing the role and Dennehy notes "the audience absolutely falls in love with her and allows their hearts to be broken by what she does."
Different than Burnett's approach, Dennehy says that Farrow's performance is, "heartbreaking, because her innocence [gives a] sense of virtue, her sense of real honesty that we can understand how easily she can be broken by the world."
Although seemingly simple in concept, the result is surprisingly complex as the actors must evolve from children, through adolescence and adulthood using nothing more than their voices and facial expressions. Dennehy describes, "The only thing you have is your voice, the words and certain limited emotional range." But despite the physical limitations Dennehy compares the actor's role much like being in charge of a big musical production. He says, "in the expression of your face, in the expression of your reading of the words lies your entire orchestra of communication. But it's enough. It's more than enough."
Unlike a musical that fills a room though with sound, Dennehy measures a successful performance of Love Letters by its silence. "You're always better to judge an audience by their sounds" he explains. "By when they don't make a sound... The silence, the silence that's on stage as well as the silence that's in the audience -- sometimes gives more information to an actor and to an audience than anything else."
"That's one of the advantages of doing a piece of theater like this. Instead of watching an actor move across the stage, or pick up a phone, or have a drink, or sit down on a couch and brood, the silence is so simple and so profound and so loud that it becomes a piece of information in itself."
Finally, as insightful as Dennehy speaks of the play and nuances between both ladies who take on their role, he had a similarly introspective view of his own performance. He said that he agrees with critics who have said that Dennehy, "certainly doesn't look the part of Andrew Makepeace Ladd, he's not one of those aging fraternity boys or tennis players." However, just like the deafening silence he described earlier, Dennehy went on to interpret the critics, "but when you close your eyes and you listen, you can hear his very strong tendency towards pomposity, you know that he has listened to his father. He knows only one way to do that, which is to become a lawyer and a politician, and so forth, be married and take care of his family and do all the right things."
But, just as Farrow and Burnett will have different interpretations of Melissa, who must first break from all she knows to find herself, Dennehy says of his role, "of course, he realizes at some point that in doing so (pursing a "significant life"), he's taken at least a substantial portion of his real personal life and thrown it away, knowing that he could not do anything else."
Love Letters plays the Brooks Atkinson Theater, starring Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow, through October 10th, after which Carol Burnett will step in for Ms. Farrow.
For more information, tickets and a schedule of performers, visit www.lovelettersbroadway.com.