The East End has a new player in the live theater space as of July 9 when the Suffolk Theater presents the first-ever play of its kind to grace their stage, A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, starring Harris Yulin and Mercedes Ruehl.
Produced by New Light Theater Project Associate Producer Josh Gladstone and directed by Yulin, the play marks a shift in Suffolk Theater’s programming, which comes along with new executive director Gary Hygom, who stepped into his new role in January. With 35 years of professional theater experience and an enduring passion for the stage, Hygom joined Suffolk Theater as the next step in a career that’s taken him to Bay Street Theater, Guild Hall, Patchogue Theatre and just about every other notable performing arts venue on Long Island.
Hygom and Yulin recently spoke with Dan’s Papers about this exciting new addition to Suffolk Theater’s oeuvre, which before this included lots of live music and stand-up comedy at the venue where audiences sit mostly at tables to enjoy the entertainment. In fact, according to Hygom, Love Letters is the very first piece of dramatic theater performed at the theater in its history, which dates back to 1933, though it was closed from 1987 until its reopening in 2013 after a massive restoration effort.
Gary Hygom Discusses Love Letters at Suffolk Theater
“It’s really kind of a milestone for the venue and for the town itself,” Hygom says, pointing out that Suffolk Theater has had a few “truncated” touring musical shows, like The Buddy Holly Story, over the years, but nothing like this.
“I’m hoping that it’s creating a new audience. Riverhead, I think, is probably not the destination people think of to go enjoy outstanding theatrical performers,” Hygom continues. “But with a show like this and performers like Mercedes and Harris, I’m hoping that this will make people reevaluate where they go for really beautiful evenings of all genres of performance, which is what I think any great performing arts center needs to offer.”
While Love Letters marks the beginning of something new at Suffolk Theater, Hygom says this production just adds to Suffolk Theater’s already healthy range of offerings. “We will never be a producing venue like a Bay Street or The Gateway or what have you on the Island. But doing theater every now and again should be part of any performing arts center.”
Hygom says Riverhead is in the midst of a major shift, making this a great time to try new forms of entertainment at Suffolk Theater. “It’s palpable what is happening on Main Street now. In another two years, maybe three, you won’t recognize Downtown Riverhead any longer. It is going through some huge transitions and transformations, it’s a really exciting time there,” he says, noting that he’d like to give the community a chance to enjoy an excellent play locally, while also attracting theatergoers from both the Hamptons and North Fork.
If anyone can attract a crowd of Broadway buffs, Ruehl and Yulin should be the ones to do it.
“How often do you get to see two actors who among them have almost every award (or nomination) this country has to give to actors?” Hygom asks. “It’s Tonys, Academy Awards, Drama Desk, Obis, Outer Circles, Emmys — I mean this is going to be an outrageous night of theater.”
And Love Letters, which premiered in 1988 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1990, is a perfect play for a venue like Suffolk Theater. “It’s theater in its most simplistic and profound, two people sitting on stage reading letters they’ve sent to each other,” Hygom says, describing the play’s vast range of emotions and its powerful emotional weight without the bells and whistles other productions might require. “That’s the reason it’s produced so often. For such a simple piece of theater, it’s profoundly moving in every way.”
About Love Letters
For those unfamiliar, Love Letters is a two-person play that tells the story of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, childhood friends who are both born to wealth and position and have had a lifelong correspondence, beginning with birthday party thank-you notes and summer camp postcards. The play features these two characters on the stage reading their lifetime of letters while also chronicling their lives and love for each other.
Yulin, who is directing Love Letters and plays Andrew in the play, says he and Ruehl (Melissa) have performed some 15 different productions together over the years, usually at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater in the summers.
The 84-year-old actor and Bridgehampton resident is not necessarily a household name, but he’s definitely a household face. Anyone who’s watched films or television over the last half century or longer will recognize Yulin from one thing or another, whether it’s The X-Files, Murphy Brown, 24, Veep, Frasier, Training Day, Scarface, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ghostbusters II or any of dozens of other credits on his IMDB page.
More recently, fans of the Netflix mega-hit Ozark will remember Yulin from the show’s first two seasons as Buddy, the Byrde family’s beloved, cantankerous landlord who knows his way around a gun and enjoys skinny dipping in all his octogenarian glory.
Harris Yulin on Love Letters, Mercedes Ruehl and More
“I knew Gary from the Bay Street and I wanted to do the production, but I also wanted to play Riverhead,” Yulin says, explaining why he approached Hygom with Love Letters. “I’d like to play a number of Long Island theaters, and I had in my mind’s eye doing a kind of Long Island tour eventually with one thing or another. Love Letters would be good, but there are a number of other things that Mercedes and I could do,” he continues, describing later what a pleasure it is to work with Ruehl, a 74-year-old East Hampton actress who won an Oscar for her supporting role in The Fisher King (1991) and is known for her characters in Big, Frasier, Entourage, Power and Bull among many other credits. “She’s the best! It’s like heaven,” Yulin says of sharing the stage with his longtime friend and collaborator.
Part of the magic and fun of Love Letters for actors is that in addition to the strong material, it requires very little preparation as both characters are actually reading their letters onstage. Yulin calls it “dead simple,” adding, “The author, Gurney, is very clear and specific about it — no music, no change of costume, no this, no that. He just wanted it very spare, very simple, very straightforward. And it’s a reading as well. We don’t memorize the thing,” he says, acknowledging that Gurney made these very clear choices about the play for a reason. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
In fact, Yulin says he and Ruehl won’t even rehearse at Suffolk Theater before opening day on July 9. “Being that it is a reading and is meant to be a reading — that’s what it is, that’s how it’s defined and done — and given our relationship, we will go through it probably a couple of times just out here and then certainly on the afternoon of the show. I feel very comfortable with that. That’s how it’s meant to be,” he says, though Love Letters still provides all kinds of opportunities for interesting acting choices.
“I think the whole idea is to have some kind of structure. The play itself provides a structure of course, so as you’re reading it through, you’re getting various thoughts and ideas about how to structure it, but it’s always an improvisation,” the seasoned actor says. “Whatever structure you have, even if you’re doing a show that you’ve rehearsed and blocked and everything, every performance is an improvisation, but you’re just improvising on a theme and a structure,” Yulin continues. “It’s like playing music, it’s a little like jazz, or any kind of music, really. You have a structure, but you’re playing within that structure. You’re not going to violate the structure. You don’t know how a particular line is going to come out, I don’t work that way.”
And Yulin says he continues to surprise himself when delivering lines. “That’s the wonder of it. When you stop surprising yourself, then it becomes a lot less interesting.”
Love Letters is playing at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead (118 East Main Street) for one night only, Saturday, July 9 at 8 p.m. Find tickets and info at suffolktheater.com.