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A.R. Gurney's 'Love Letters' revival stars Brian Dennehy, Mia Farrow, Carol Burnett, more

Comedian Carol Burnett backstage after a performance by

Comedian Carol Burnett backstage after a performance by Linda Lavin at 54 Below in Manhattan. (Sept. 17, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

At first glance, this doesn't seem anything like a radical idea.

"Love Letters," A.R. Gurney's 1990 Pulitzer finalist in which two actors sit at a table and read from 50 years of letters between friends, has been adapted into 24 languages, including Urdu, and performed in more than 40 countries. This does not include cruise ships, where the play, which requires little rehearsal and no decoration, is standard flotation entertainment. Nor do these statistics recognize virtually every metropolis and hamlet where potential Broadway audiences have probably seen the thing.

And yet, Broadway's upcoming revival of "Love Letters" -- its first since 1989 -- feels somehow fresh and different to me. First there is the list of actors, high-end celebrities paired with equally intriguing partners, staged by first-rate director Gregory Mosher. Then there is the prospect of star casts that change every month, a system that only remotely resembles the revolving-door casting at "Chicago" since what feels like the beginning of time.

More to my point, the production that begins previews Saturday night and opens Tuesday with Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow, seems less a marketing gimmick than a logical and ingenious extension of the big-star, limited-run system that rules Broadway today.

Nelle Nugent, veteran producer of more than 60 shows and lead producer of this one, confirms my suspicion. "Like many of my colleagues," she told me in a recent phone interview, "I had been getting calls that 'So and so wants to do Broadway.' I say, 'Fantastic. For how long?' They say 'Eight weeks.' I ask, 'Plus rehearsals?' They say, 'No.'

"The economics just won't work that way," said Nugent in frustration.

Then she thought about "Love Letters," a low-overhead, minimal-fuss project that could make sense using major stars who can't, or don't want to, commit to working long enough to make a profit the old-fashioned way -- with a six-month gig and without premium gouging. "But it has to be a wonderful play."

She convinced a group of co-producers, including Barbara Broccoli, veteran of the James Bond franchise, to back her idea of a series of short runs -- something that was done with "Love Letters" on Broadway in 1989-1990.

She got the rights and snared Mosher and they all started making phone calls. "Among us, we have a pretty good Rolodex," she says with a laugh. As of now, the play is booked until the end of January. Next come Dennehy and Carol Burnett (quite a contrast from Farrow), then Candice Bergen and Alan Alda, Diana Rigg and Stacy Keach, and finally Angelica Huston and Martin Sheen.

"They all know each other and like each other," Nugent marvels. "Alan and Candice are very good friends. Diana starred in this before with Stacy. Angelica said, 'You know who I'd love? Martin Sheen.'" The next round of casting is in the works, but it's far too early for definite plans.

Although Off-Broadway readings of "The Vagina Monologues" and Nora Ephron's "Love, Loss and What I Wore" have had ever-changing casts, the closest Broadway has come to the idea since "Love Letters" premiered was last season's "After Midnight." Structured as an homage to the Cotton Club Revue in Harlem's Golden Age, the show provided a space for a guest star to do four songs. Fantasia Barrino played 16 weeks, followed by four weeks with k.d. lang, then Toni Braxton, Patti LaBelle and others.

As producer Scott Sanders sees the concept, his show offered a particular opportunity for such extended guest stays. "The Cotton Club used to have Celebrity Sundays, when Judy Garland or Billie Holiday would come in and perform with Duke Ellington and the band. Hopefully, someone who loved hearing Fantasia sing 'Stormy Weather' wanted to see how k.d. lang did it."

He knows that not every show can invite guests into the mix the way "Love Letters" does and his show did. For Sanders, who was executive producer of Radio City Music Hall for 15 years, it was a chance to go into the music community for talent that might not fit into a traditional musical.

He recognizes both the concept's pluses and what he calls its "challenges. It's good for Broadway, it's good for the audience, it's good for the artistic community. But you have to set up the business model from day one" so the guests are clearly part of the plan. Scheduling, costuming and publicity are more complicated. And, he says, "There's always the fear that we're cannibalizing our own audience ... that people are postponing ticket purchases" to wait for the next star or the next.

I asked Mosher, who has been a part of several star-driven limited-runs and also critical of the system, whether "Love Letters" isn't the apotheosis for a culture of short attention spans. He argued that, instead, it is the "flip side. As a business model, it's different."

With a 14-week engagement, he tells me, "You have to sell out completely. You have to get ticket prices up absolutely to the maximum, jamming as many premium seats as possible" amid massive media hype.

With "Love Letters," which has a relatively moderate (for these days) ticket range of $52-$127, he says, "we don't have to fill the place to 98 percent capacity in order to consider ourselves a success. This is like old-school producing."

Besides, he adds, "I get to hang out with some people I never dreamed I'd get to work with on a deceptively simple play about people who love each other very much, but just can't quite make it work. That sounds like life to me."

He is rehearsing each couple just "a few days." He says he and Nugent cast for "celebrities who can really act the hell out of" what he believes to be a cleverly constructed and deeply moving play. It's really smart and adult and sad, though Nelle would like me to also say it is funny."

And -- who knows? -- maybe a little radical.

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