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Theatre in Review: The Last of the Love Letters (Atlantic Theater Company)

Daniel J. Watts. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

"These are but wild and whirling words, my lord." Horatio's comment to Hamlet kept running through my mind at the Atlantic Theater as the protagonists of Ngozi's Anyanwu play unleashed powerful verbal cataracts, baring their souls in monologues surging with passion if sometimes deficient in sense. A virtual two-hander -- a third character plays a minor role -- The Last of the Love Letters at first appears to be the autopsy of a love affair, each participant presenting his or her emotional scar tissue for clinical examination. Soon, it is obvious that the playwright is after something else -- but what?

Anyanwu, who also co-stars, takes the stage first, occupying a cramped apartment set to denounce the lover she is preparing to leave. The gist of the case against him is that she was forced to play a role constructed entirely for his pleasure. It was, she notes, an all-encompassing part, which demanded that she dress to his taste and put his sexual needs first. (She clutches a pair of glossy red pumps that, seemingly, symbolize her subjugation; funny how she hates to let them go.) Speaking in a kind of staccato blank verse, she comments on the monstrous falsity of their relationship and her subsequent loss of self: "Sometimes I stepped into the pain like my favorite part/I waited for my places/I stepped into the light/And gave the performance of a lifetime/A happy partner/Smiling."

So fiery is her anger that she torches herself, too, admitting to her complicity in their dance of dishonesty: "I liked being the thing you needed/I would be lying if I said the way you clinged to me didn't make me feel powerful/I would be lying if I said I didn't love the way a wise word from me made me feel like I held your life in my hands/I would be lying if I said it didn't feel good/To withhold sometimes." Anyanwu delivers this indictment with a furious authority -- at one point, she nearly sets her lover's guitar on fire -- while avoiding making the exit that will definitively signal the end of the affair. Her rage, it seems, is equal only to her ambivalence. It's a relatively brief scene but an intriguing one, leaving one eager to find out what happens next.

Then the set is mostly whisked away, and we meet Daniel J. Watts as the tormented pair's other half. Lean, handsome, and clearly on edge, he appears ready to match Anyanwu grievance for grievance. But note his difficulty in calling up simple words like "conversation." See how tightly he clutches his iron bedstead, seemingly holding on for dear life. And consider the faint undertone of terror in everything he says. Watts -- who will soon return to the role of Ike Turner in the musical Tina -- renders a character almost demonically possessed by the memory of his ex, a whirling dervish buffeted by emotional storms.

It's a role that demands a tour de force; that Watts' constant shifts of mood and restless physical activity don't come off as acting-class affectations is high praise indeed. He even comes close to pulling off the moment when, lying face down, he crawls downstage and begs a member of the audience to hold his hand. It's a shocking bit of sentimental pandering from a playwright who should know better, and given the times, it sends an uncomfortable ripple through the audience when contact is made.

But not even the most accomplished actor can help with a script that is speeding into a dead end of obscurantism. Watts' character is nothing like the manipulator described by Anyanwu; instead, he seems permanently placed on the edge of a nervous breakdown. ("I am told it's important/To base myself in reality," he says, making this seem like the frailest of hopes.) In contrast to her charge that he made her play a role for him, he says, "It feels like I made you up... like I made us up/Did I make us up? Was that real? Are you real? I know I'm repeating myself but I'm just/I'm trying to work it out/Did we go through the piss and the shit/To just end up here?"

Good question: Where is Watts, anyway? Who is the attendant who administers medication, inspecting his mouth to make sure he has swallowed? If, as it seems, he is in a mental institution, why is the attendant dressed in a hazmat suit? And why is Watts insisting that he is an artist who has been rounded up? No answers are forthcoming and as The Last of the Love Letters reaches its climax, one is left with several vividly written passages embedded inside an impenetrable allegory. The characters are listed as You and You No. 2; perhaps the action unfolds inside the consciousness of a single person? Or perhaps it has something to do with police states? Or the oppression of artists? (After all, why does Watts keep a bunch of playbills between his mattresses?) But, really, this is a bring-your-own metaphor party; you'll get no help from the author.

It's difficult to know if the director, Patricia McGregor, could have done more to shape this awkward piece, but she certainly gets finely modulated and commanding performances from her stars. Given the extreme vagueness of the play's setting and intentions, it's not surprising that Yu-Hsuan Chen's sparse scenery and Dede Ayite's costumes make little impact. Rather stronger is Stacey Derosier's lighting, which mixes stark white washes with strongly defined color accents to signal Watts' mental anguish. She is aided in this by Twi McCallum's deliberately unsettling sound effects.

The Last of the Love Letters is brief and you're unlikely to be bored; indeed, the performances, especially Watts', may carry you through the show. But one is left with the sense of a talented writer pursuing a private meaning with little regard for her audience. Whatever is going on is for her to know and for you to find out -- if you can. --David Barbour

(14 September 2021)

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