Review: In ‘The Last of the Love Letters,’ Passion Is Inescapable

Ngozi Anyanwu began writing for the theater, she instructed the playwright Jeremy O. Harris a couple of years in the past, to develop roles that she and different Black girls actors, many of them first or second technology Americans, “weren’t seeing onstage.”

In the course of, they had been additionally creating one thing else, simply as beneficial: new types. Bringing surrealism and magic and a number of ranges of storytelling to their performs, writers together with Anyanwu, Jocelyn Bioh, Mfoniso Udofia, Danai Gurira and Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu typically gave the impression to be dragging American theater out of the lounge and into the open. With few exceptions, their work didn’t have any of the markers of old style dramaturgy: sofas, beds, bar carts, simple chairs. Often, there was no place to be simple in any respect.

So it’s one thing of a purple herring that the first scene of Anyanwu’s “The Last of the Love Letters,” which opened on Sunday at Atlantic Theater Company, takes place in a comfortable studio condo dominated by a rumpled, welcoming mattress. A pair of purple stilettos stands at consideration close by. Teddy Pendergrass croons from the report participant.

If you thus assume, as I did, that this will likely be a simple play about romance — with all its pleasures, together with the bittersweet ones of recalling it after it’s gone — assume once more. Although “The Last of the Love Letters,” like Anyanwu’s “The Homecoming Queen” and “Good Grief,” does concern the lengthy aftermath of a troubled affair, its different title signifies bigger ambitions: “For All the Lovesick Mad Sad Geniuses.”

Anyanwu in her play, by which she delivers a livid comedian diatribe to an absent lover.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

What precisely these ambitions are was not at all times clear to me. Playing a girl known as solely “Her” in the script, Anyanwu delivers a livid comedian diatribe to an absent lover she’s apparently ambivalent about leaving. There’s no query she’s offended about how he has bent her into the picture he wished: “I put on the perfect lip color / I wore the clothes you liked,” she intones in the quasi-poetic cadences of the script. But she simply as typically flips into admitting, with a sly grin, her personal accountability:

“Okay if I’m being honest, I liked being the thing you needed,” she grants, later including: “I would be lying if I said it didn’t feel good / To withhold sometimes / A lot of times / Most of the time.”

The alternation between these two modes, although amusingly rendered by Anyanwu, is considerably schematic, and is perhaps much more so had been it not for daring staging selections by the director, Patricia McGregor. Bringing bodily life to the oscillations of the naked textual content, she at one level has Anyanwu pour what seems to be like a fifth of Patrón into the sound gap of the ex’s guitar and threaten to gentle it. At one other level, indulging happier ideas, the character is directed to make pleasurable use of that mattress.

But the is-she-really-leaving love story, it seems, is just the bait for what follows. After 20 minutes of Her, when a jarring reconfiguration of Yu-Hsuan Chen’s set brings us to a different world fully, we get Him. The subsequent 50 minutes happen in a high-security cell, the variety you may think housing the most harmful, psychotic inmates.

The man inside it, performed by Daniel J. Watts, is clearly mad, in each senses. But he doesn’t appear harmful, even when fed drugs by an orderly (Xavier Scott Evans). Rather, he appears emotionally bereft, determined to reconnect with a girl who has unilaterally ended issues with him. As we start to wonder if the lady in query is the identical one we received to know earlier — or, for that matter, an precise lady in any respect, or many — his confinement, at least his longing, begins to appear extra allegorical than actual.

Watts provides a thrillingly bodily efficiency.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The extremely patterned writing as soon as once more introduces an issue of diminishing returns. As the man delivers an extended monologue searching for reconciliation or not less than some kind of human contact, his language flows in lengthy, looping arcs of tried seductiveness that flip into disappointment that metastasizes into fury that burns itself out and begins over once more. Sometimes he blames her (“Why did you have to love me back?”) and generally, pitifully, himself.

But for what, precisely?

If Anyanwu doesn’t present us with keys to the allegory, besides to trace moderately broadly that it entails the repression of artists in a totalitarian state, an actor as wonderful as Watts can’t assist however fill in the blanks. In a thrillingly bodily efficiency, he brings coherence that is probably not in the script to the prisoner’s extremes of grief and craving, regardless of whether or not the jail is made of bars or concepts.

This isn’t any shock for those who’ve seen Watts in the selection of troublesome roles he’s performed over the final a number of years in New York, together with the glowering Ike Turner in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” and an precise prisoner in “Whorl Inside a Loop.” He generally appears to include a personality so utterly that the efficiency is a wrestle to maintain from exploding. In “Love Letters,” he does explode, a number of instances. But each time he blows aside, the play predictably forces him to regroup.

It’s true that individuals are lumpy that manner; I solely want “Love Letters” weren’t. Because Anyanwu’s earlier performs have proved so recent and highly effective, even when taking over extra acquainted topics, I’m tempted to treat this one as a sketch moderately than a botch. If the allegory itself doesn’t persuade, given too little actual property in an already quick operating time to rise above the clichés of dystopian style fiction, it could be useful to have a look at the play by way of the different finish of the telescope: What do these clichés say about love itself?

Seen that manner, it’s simpler to be moved by Him and Her, and to sense what may need drawn them collectively as lovers and as characters. Both are operatic sorts, making arias out of their affection and abhorrence. Their perseverative cycles of longing sound like the pressured speech of individuals pushed mad by oppression. If you substitute the tyranny of love for that of the state, “Love Letters” might reveal how our strongest wants in the end change into our most inescapable prisons.

The Last of the Love Letters

Through Sept. 26 at the Linda Gross Theater, Manhattan; 646-989-7996, atlantictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.