The Love Letter You’ve Been Meaning to Write New York
nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
September 23, 2011
How many thousand times, in walking through the streets at night, have I wondered if the day would ever come again when she would be at my side: all those yearning looks I bestowed on the buildings and statues, I had looked at them so hungrily, so desperately, that by now my thoughts must have become a part of the very buildings and statues, they must be saturated with my anguish.
Though writing about Paris, Henry Miller gets at something essential about urban life. The city as we know it is a hybrid of its physical landscape suffused with the emotional landscape we create through the accretion of experiences therein. This dual nature of large cities is at the heart of The Love Letter You've Been Meaning to Write New York, conceived and directed by Jonathan Solari for the 3LD Art & Technology Center. Starting with lead Arnaud Spanos creating a video tour of his relationship's urban landmarks, a failed proposal sends him into a self-destructive spiral climaxing in an ultimatum about whether or not he will stay in this city where his heart was broken. Along the way he encounters a huge (40+) and colorful array of New York characters full of advice and a few musical numbers.
Taking advantage of 3LD's floor-to-ceiling windows, Love Letter sets the vast majority of its action outside on Greenwich Street, utilizing microphones to bring it inside to the warm and dry audience within. This invitation to chaos led to some of the show's most organically delightful moments, often involving passing children either realizing or not that they were being watched. Harnessing New York's immense narrative density and creating this sort of stochastically charged space is the piece's greatest accomplishment as a tribute to its namesake.
Unfortunately the show does little beyond this structural premise to capture an authentic impression of the city. Collaboratively devised by the ensemble through improvisations that were subsequently codified, the text points toward its generative process in its inconsistency and the shaky-at-best narrative logic of Spanos's journey. Apart from a handful of insider references (such as to prolific tag artist, Dickchicken), the show's sentiments about New York are broad, maudlin, and often lacking in convincing specificity.
The cast is similarly spotty, being particularly dragged down by a distinctly underwhelming lead in Arnaud Spanos. Vaguely defined as a freelance documentary filmmaker, Spanos lacks the performative charisma to cover for the deficit of any compelling narrative specificity. The show's frequent dance numbers are all a bit too long and lacking in virtuosity or at least choreographic ingenuity. Perhaps most disappointing was the gratuitous use of puppets, with a troupe of muppets popping in briefly to head-bang during a musical number before disappearing again without any real context or justification apparent beyond the addition of the ever-hip “puppetry” to its catch-all list of utilized media for the press release.
Choosing to represent New York as a “sultry jazz” Times Square at night or a “CBGB punk” Lower East Side, it often feels more a tribute to a mythologized pre-Giuliani '80s New York than the actual, evolving, commercialized entity it is today. Perhaps this is unfair—New York has always been a city of romantic mythology entwined with harsh reality. It's this interplay between expectations and reality that produces the city's distinct magic. While Love Letter acknowledges this basic dynamic, it fails to challenge it or explore beyond its most rudimentary implications. Combined with writing and acting of inconsistent quality and dramaturgical laziness, Love Letter has an interesting premise and structure but fails to meet their potential. It does, however, serve as an excellent test case for the sort of technologically savvy and formally interesting work for which 3LD was built, and hopefully will serve as a point of inspiration for bolder collaborators.