By Ron Fassler
Letters Live began life in 2013 in the United Kingdom as a unique theatrical event, with a purpose to entertain, as well as to offer some of its proceeds to benefit local literacy charities. Billed as “a celebration of the enduring power of the humble letter, ”these onstage readings are produced by (among others) British publisher Jamie Byng and the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s a bare-bones affair, in which famous people read letters aloud onstage at a lectern, written by or to friends, family, lovers—sometimes even corporations. Whether the sender or recipient is famous is beside the point, though on the night I was in attendance, a number of them were. The letters run the range from intensely personal, to deeply sad, to archly satiric, to wildly funny. And to keep an air of mystery about it, the casts are more hinted at than announced, with no program handed out either before or after the show. This New York premiere, staged over two nights, took place at Town Hall (now in its centenary), and offered a wide array of eclectic talent. And when the disembodied voice of its female announcer would introduce each missive (in a fine British accent), there would be a sentence or two about the letter’s history, leading to a crowd-stirring announcement of who the reader was, causing the audience to break out in cheers each and every time as if it were a rock concert: “Ladies and gentlemen, Chevy Chase!”
Yes, in an evening distinguished by a cast of overwhelmingly legitimate theatre actors and actresses, the first letter, written in 1920 by George Bernard Shaw, was read by Chevy Chase (with no apparent rehearsal). Reading it with little familiarity, as if his alleged charm would be enough to cover his stumbling more than a few times, he made a general mess of things. This was not a good way to start the night. Following was a lackluster Katie Holmes, reading a letter by the novelist and poet Eudora Welty, written in 1933 to New York Magazine. It wasn’t until the third letter, which had the benefit of not only being genuinely funny, but being performed by the fine stage and film actor Ben Foster. Replying to an assignment handed in to Rolling Stone by the author Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), Foster’s rendition of the response from one of the magazine’s editors, Hunter S. Thompson, offered Thompson at his salacious best: “When Rolling Stone asks for a think piece, we want a goddamn fucking think piece!”
It was the actors who came prepared who truly scored (big surprise, huh?). Just coming out and reading does not work, even if some thought it could. If there had been rehearsals (and with a cast this unwieldy, I can almost guarantee there was none), perhaps some would have recognized how high the bar was being set by some of their contemporaries, and adjusted their performances accordingly. In addition to the aforementioned Foster, those who clearly spent the time necessary working up their pieces, were such genuine pros as Kyle MacLachlan, Ian McShane, Uzo Aduba, Lauren Graham, Molly Ringwald, Laurence Fishburne (and in three readings, Cumberbatch himself).
For me, the ultimate highlight was when that Lion in Winter, the eighty-seven year-old James Earl Jones strode in from the wings slowly (but steadily), and gingerly placed his walking cane on the lectern. Then, with that voice we know all too well as Mufasa, Darth Vader and “This is CNN,” plumbed the depths of a marvelous letter from the writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to a New York City high school class that had each individually tested their powers of persuasion to have him come and speak to them. In his response to their gracious invitation, Vonnegut apologized for not being able to come, but offered his advice to “practice art, and do art, and do it for the rest of your life.” And coming from Jones, who is still practicing (and doing) sixty years after making his Broadway debut, was inspiring on many levels.
At a near three hours in length, the evening was too long by nearly half. This undisciplined show needs to be shaped and molded into something that resembles a performance more than a happening. And for that to happen, all that is required is someone in charge with a firm hand to make sure everyone is (literally) on the same page.
- Note: Sale of the book on Vero area going to two great charities, Women For Women and 826LA. Two important charities concerned with improving young people’s literary skills and helping women who are victims of conflict and war, respectively.
Letters Live at Town Hall
Town Hall, 123 West 43 St, NYC
May 18 and 19, 2018 only