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“I don’t think there is going to be any significant change and resurgence of New York theater until there’s a vaccine,” Bryan Cranston says. “So we just have to hope that smarter people than us are working on that, and we do what we do: try to entertain, try to keep people’s minds and souls occupied, even if it’s a diversion for just a couple of hours. That’s what we do, so let’s do it. Let’s all get to work.”

For three weeks now, Thursday nights have been the opportunity to see top-tier actors doing just that: getting to work. Broadway’s Best Shows’ Spotlight on Plays weekly programming, brought together by executive producer Jeffrey Richards, is a benefit for the Actors Fund. The first production had Patti LuPone and John Malkovich leading David Mamet’s November, and the second reunited the original Gideon Glick–led cast of Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other. This Thursday evening’s performance marks its highest profile yet: Cranston will be joined by Sally Field for a one-night-only reading of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters under the direction of Jerry Zaks.

“With all of us trapped in our own environment and feeling somewhat helpless and powerless, this is a way of empowering people to feel relevant during these times when you can feel so impotent,” Cranston says. “And so it doesn’t take much convincing to say, ‘Yes, please, let me.’ Let me focus on something that I can do here to make the day go by. Let me think about it and develop a character.” The actor adds that Love Letters is particularly adaptable for readings such as this: “There’s really no set, there’s two actors sitting, and they’re literally reading letters.”

The drama follows two childhood friends, Andrew and Melissa, as they read nearly 50 years’ worth of letters back and forth; their lives wind about one another in ways both profound and heartbreaking. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the two-hander is easy to produce and has been a popular go-to for benefit readings and the like since its 1989 Broadway run, tapping everyone from Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones to Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Daniels along the way. Alan Alda and Candice Bergen, among others, were even part of its 2014 Broadway revival. But for Field, she and the play have long been two passing ships.

“People have asked me, won’t I come do it, and it just never fit in at the right time in my life that I could,” she says. “So when Jeff asked me, ‘Would you do it with Bryan?’ and it was looking like Jerry could direct it, I finally read it. And there’s a reason why it has been going on and on for so long. It’s very moving.”

The coronavirus pandemic requires that Cranston and Field remain separated in their respective California homes for the reading, but it seems fitting, too, that Love Letters’ subjects are physically separated through the action of the play. But Field says while it makes sense structurally to be apart, and while Zoom of all things has become part of her new routine, between sessions with her personal trainer and video calls with her family, learning to collaborate creatively in the time of COVID-19 has proved especially difficult in their two weeks of rehearsal and filming.

“It was really hard to not have the experience of being with your fellow actor and the wonderful Jerry Zaks. I wanted him in the room with me!” she says. “You come to realize that part of the thrill, part of the energy, part of what it is to be an actor is to be with your fellow actors and the director. Rehearsals for a play is the most glorious time that there is, and I revel in it.”

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