The nostalgia expressed for the 1970 megahit "Love Story" skips the widely held dissent of the time, that the movie, partially set in Cambridge, was well-executed treacle. Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw were dreamy, sure, and both Oscar-nominated, but "love means never having to say you're sorry"? OMG, srsly?
Now, all these years later, O'Neal and MacGraw reunite in A.R. Gurney's epistolary play "Love Letters," at the Shubert through Sunday. It's a subtler piece of work — a low bar, perhaps — despite its simple, celeb-friendly staging. The actors read the correspondence of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, childhood friends who can't let go of each other even as they lead mostly separate lives across the next half century.
Gurney writes about uppercrust Northeast WASPs, and the Roman numeral is not the only thing Andy has in common with Oliver Barrett IV of "Love Story." But unlike that story's working-class Jenny Cavalleri, Melissa is even richer than Andy. Between them, they make all the predictable stops, including prep schools, Yale, art school, Palm Beach, Europe, Manhattan, divorce, psychiatry, alcoholism, and the US Senate.
At first, it's parents and school rules that separate them. But their adolescence and young adulthood are maddening: He advances, she ducks away; she makes saucy suggestions, he defers to his obligations. When they finally attempt a college tryst, it sends them spinning apart for decades. What the WASPs think of as a proper reserve here seems like an avoidable tragedy.
But what everyone wants to know about, of course, is the actors, both in their 70s now. Yes, they look great, especially MacGraw, with her swept-back hair and those eyes. There's an easy, obvious chemistry between them. They're seated at a table, and they do read the whole thing, eyes on scripts, which gives an extra resonance to every time they look up in humor or anger, every silence carefully calibrated by director Gregory Mosher.
O'Neal has mostly played twinkly-eyed bad boys in his career, and he's cast against type as the dutiful, diffident, earnest Andy, with his wife and kids and beloved dogs. It's fun to watch him work without being able to resort to his usual charms.
MacGraw mostly stepped away from the screen after "Winds of War" and "Dynasty" in the 1980s, and she never had the same sort of well-defined star persona as O'Neal. She's a bit of a revelation as the artistic Melissa, whose rebellious, bohemian tendencies fail to protect her from the emptiness of her later life, when she falls prey to booze and depression.
Gurney's characters can leave the rest of us — who are not wealthy and reserved — feeling a bit unsympathetic: You call those problems? But as "Love Letters" goes on, MacGraw exposes Melissa's raw pain in a way that raises the stakes here dramatically.
Written by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Presented by the Citi Performing Arts Center. At the Shubert Theatre, through Sunday. Tickets: $34-$89, 866-348-9738, www.citicenter.org