A woman named You (Ngozi Anyanwu) lies on her bed, writing a letter aloud to a former lover, explaining the dissolution of their relationship. “It’s important that you know that / This wasn’t easy,” she begins. “I didn’t want to / I didn’t make this decision / Lightly.” Though an adult, You’s room is filled with the trappings of a teenager’s: drawings tacked to the wall, a hidden bottle of tequila, a lockbox under the bed. She speaks, it seems, to clarify the story to both her ex-lover and herself.
After twenty minutes or so, You disappears from the play, replaced by a prisoner, You No. 2 (Daniel J. Watts), who is also composing a letter to a former lover. Is it You? Perhaps. This time, though, the environment is decidedly ominous. Guards in hazmat suits arrive to feed You No. 2 medicine. Other hints are dropped of a dystopia outside the cell, one that has punished artists and other mad geniuses. The letter, in fact, may not be to a lover at all, but to art itself, or to the medium he practiced before he was captured, drugged, and isolated.
There are two problems, I think, with Anyanwu’s new play, The Last of the Love Letters: clarity and form. This is obviously political theater, an allegory of some sort, but a fuzzy one with recognizable tropes from dystopian fiction but no clear vision. The hazmat suits, for example, are a loaded image after this last year and a half, but Anyanwu never uses them to full effect. Of course, an author can offer incomplete clues, expecting the audience to use its imagination to fill in the blanks, but even those are sparse here. Just as there can be too much explanation, there can be too little as well. The dystopian element, indeed, feels tacked on, an afterthought to the monologues.
This brings us to the issue of form. While both actors handle their parts well—Watts, in particular, is excellent in his fifty uninterrupted minutes—Ayanwu falls prey to the temptation of overwriting, of including long stretches of beautiful language that do little to advance narrative or character. The monologue has felled many a strong writer before now, and The Last of the Love Letters is another such casualty. After COVID-19, it feels particularly inappropriate: what I, at least, would like from this moment in theater is connection between characters, bodies on stage reacting to one another. Instead, we get a schematic reflection of our lives in lockdown. It’s too soon for that.
The Last of the Love Letters ran through September 26th at the Linda Gross Theater. 336 W. 20th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 10 minutes. No intermission. Photograph by Ahron Foster.