REVIEW: “The Letters” at Bridge Street Theatre

by Macey Levin

David Zellnik’s engrossing play The Letters is receiving its world premiere at the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, New York.  It is 2014 and the thirty-four year old Rajiv says to the audience, “What is irreplaceable nowadays?  Love?  Well, maybe.  In a simple and almost mindless way, you can replace one person’s love with another.  But what about the person who gave you that love?  Now, that’s irreplaceable.”  “Irreplaceable” is the driving force in this love story as it applies to four young people who attempt to define their relationships and their own identities.

In 2002 Rajiv (Shivantha Singer) is a squatter in a shabby apartment in Berlin.  His college roommate Henry (Christopher Joel Onken) and his traveling companion Rachel (Sara Parcesepe) have been hitchhiking their way across Europe and ask to stay with him for a couple of days which turns into three months.  Henry has his degree in ancient languages concentrating on Proto-Indo-European while Rachel has majored in French and German.  Rajiv is an artist whose parents insisted that he earn his degree in marketing.  They are twenty-two years old and floating through life before they have to decide who they want to be.  The play is constructed as that single day in 2014 unwinds countered by flashbacks to the room twelve years earlier.

Henry, who is gay, and Rajiv banter about their relationship saying they have loved each other as friends but without a physical relationship.  Rachel serves as a buffer between the two men.  Through these three months Rajiv and Rachel admit to falling in love and twelve years later they are unmarried, living together in Manhattan, ensconced in mundane jobs.  On this day Rajiv and a co-worker, Laura (Alexis Cofield,) decide not to go into the office; they spend their time together at an art museum and on the roof of her apartment house.   Laura, also an artist and, ironically, twenty-two, has been offered a position in the company after her internship, but does not want to live that kind of life.  Though she has a boy friend she seems to prefer to be alone.  With her art, Laura’s self-awareness is a stark contrast to Rajiv’s repressed desires.

Through the twelve years Rajiv and Henry have written letters to each other which Rajiv has saved, but Henry has stopped writing to Rachel.  She is hurt by the break from Henry’s abandonment and Rajiv’s refusal to share the letters with her. Several days earlier he received a letter that he has yet to open.  The relationship among the three old friends is fractured.

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The script requires, and receives, fine performances from the four actors.  Singer, Onken and Parcesepe realistically age from the devil-may-care twenty-two-year olds in Berlin into the worn and frustrated adults of 2014.  Onken in particular morphs from the lithe young man filled with ambition to a broken almost wraith-like variant of himself.  Parcesepe’s Rachel is the strongest of the three friends, perhaps knowing more than the others of what she wants.  At first, compliant and gregarious she becomes angry and wary of Rajiv.  Confidence seems to ooze out of Singer when his Rajiv is young, but later he is the picture of a businessman weary and resentful of the job he wishes to leave.  Cofield’s Laura is the softest character and plays her simply and sincerely.  It’s a smart performance.  There are many intimate conversations throughout the play occasionally resulting in compromised projection by the actors, but the tone of their voices reveals the emotional content of the moment.

The production has been beautifully staged by Bridge Street’s Artistic Director John Sowle who also created the set and light designs.  His stage pictures are effectively composed and the pace of the play beats with emotional rhythms.  The sets are minimal, keeping the focus on the characters.  The actors situate basic props as they play the moment so that the changes are part of the action and, therefore, unobtrusive and efficient.  In addition, there are myriad projections depicting various locations and, very dramatically, a torrent of letters Henry and Rajiv have written that inundate the screen.  The lighting complements the atmosphere of theplay as several of the scenes are shadowed toward the dark side.

The strength of this gripping production is Zellnik’s script.  The conversational and precise dialogue realistically expands the characterizations.  Not a word is wasted as he moves his protagonists through time, a range of emotions and conflict.  Despite what could be a rambling story line, it is tight and follows an impelling dramatic arc.

This is a show in which all the creative elements work together to create a solid and sensitive portrait of four people and a profound emotional experience for its audience.

In the short time Bridge Street Theatre has been in existence they have garnered a reputation for presenting primarily new and provocative plays in finely-tuned productions with simple but effective technical designs.  The theatre itself is comfortable and compact without a single bad seat.  Some of the performances are “Pay what you will.”  Catskill is in the midst of a renewal with interesting shops and terrific restaurants including a wonderful Van Winkles Bakery down the street from the theatre in which everything is made on site, and the New York Restaurant that features a Polish menu.  The town includes Hudson Valley artist Thomas Cole’s homestead and Frederick Church’s Olana is within minutes.  Lastly, it is not far away.  It takes less than an hour from the northwest corner of Connecticut through the beautiful countryside to reach this attractive town.

The Letters by David Zellnik; Directed by John Sowle; Cast:  Shivantha Singer (Rajiv) Christoper Joel Onken (Henry) Sara Parcesepe (Rachel) Alexis Cofield (Laura); Scene/Lighting design: John Sowle; Costume design: Michelle Rogers; Sound design: Carmen Borgia; Production Stage Manager: Joshua Martin; Dramaturge: Steven Patterson

Running Time: two hours, fifteen minutes; one intermission; Bridge Street Theatre, Catskill, NY, 800-838-3006; 518-943-3818; From 4/25/19; closing 5/5/19.


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