Zeppo Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

A spoof is often scornful and mean-spirited, but parody–however enthusiastically it may poke fun at its target–always has an affectionate edge. After all, who but a devoted fan would become so familiar with a form? George Brant’s Lovely Letters: A Correspondence of Love is parody at its best, delivering Mad magazine-style laughs almost up to the end and then springing an utterly unforeseen upbeat ending logical enough to wrap up the entire saga and sentimental enough to send us home weeping happily.

The target of Lovely Letters is, of course, A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, which traces a lifelong romance between two hopelessly mismatched people through their extensive correspondence. That this conceit reduced the stage picture to two actors sitting at podiums reading from scripts did nothing to diminish the play’s popularity. The ease with which it could be staged–no lines to memorize, no movement to coordinate, no costumes to be fitted–was also attractive, and an unending stream of big-name stars have been eager to show off their vocal-interpretation skills. (In deference to this tradition, the actors in Lovely Letters are introduced by name and take several bows before assuming their roles.)

The correspondence in Lovely Letters is initiated when Richard Johnson–the nerdish son of a shoe salesman, currently a liberal-arts major at a small community college and popcorn pusher at a local movie house–complains to Frito-Lay about one of their products, the revolting “headcheese snackers.” The customer-service representative is Jane Pennington: the spoiled daughter of a corporate tycoon, she’s currently enrolled in an exclusive private school where she majors in “Human Studies” and holds a part-time job because her father thinks it will “build character.” It’s a match made in Looneyland, but these two understandably lonely children strike up a long-distance relationship.

The summer when they finally meet face-to-face leaves them both convinced they’re in love–though Jane still longs for the earthier embraces of her punk-rocker ex-boyfriend, and Richard realizes that he cannot afford his beloved’s expensive tastes. He lies to her, they quarrel, and on the eve of their making up he’s drafted. During the war he learns he’s a confident and ruthless killer, mailing home a severed enemy ear as a token of affection, to the horror of the recipient. Meanwhile, a Christmas vision outside Marshall Field’s convinces Jane she must renounce her frivolous ways and devote her life to God. Upon his discharge, Richard–having discovered his latent sadism–gets his business degree and starts his own investment firm. Jane enlists in the Peace Corps, serving in Uganda and eventually marrying a fellow imperialist-in-training (Richard spitefully disrupts the wedding with a squadron of Hell’s Angels hired especially for the occasion). As the years pass, these unpleasant people continue to get precisely what they deserve, but just when both despair of the paths they’ve chosen a deathbed communication makes it all worthwhile.

The humor in Lovely Letters stems not only from the outrageous situations but from the formally worded letters and several slyly satirical one-liners (a fast-food outlet named Everybody’s a Wiener, a Christian pop-music group called Rappin’ in Tongues). Then there are the personalities of the correspondents–Jane dots her letters with smiley faces and pens such fatuities as “In times of crisis, petty differences must be put aside to be taken out again at a later time.” There are even a few yuks to be had from the very notion of written communication presented orally, as when Richard’s rendering of an impassioned telegram segues into a Fleetwood Mac song. The very cleverness of the dialogue–delivered with pinpoint precision by Brant as Richard and Rachel Hamilton as Jane–tends to obscure how tightly written and carefully crafted Lovely Letters is. This debut offering from Zeppo Productions is indeed lovely.