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Chamberlayne Actors Theatre gets the right address with "84 Charing Cross Road."

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Judging by last month's "I love you" calamity, outbreaks of destructive e-mail viruses could become regular occurrences. Suddenly, "snail mail" doesn't seem so much a throwback as a safe, sensible alternative. How serendipitous then for the Chamberlayne Actors Theatre which opened "84 Charing Cross Road" last week, a charming celebration of the power of printed correspondence. The dialogue in this whisper-light comedy is in the form of letters exchanged by Frank Doel (Jay McCullough), the proprietor of a London bookshop, and New York writer Helene Hanff (Terri Moore). While this might seem like a hard gimmick to sustain a whole play, in this production, skillfully directed by Terry Gau, it works effortlessly well. Old-fashioned without being quaint, the play is as warm and comfortable as an overstuffed sofa while still managing to build up a modicum of suspense.

The suspense comes from wondering whether Hanff will ever venture from Manhattan and visit the Marks and Company bookshop on Charing Cross Road. In 1949, Hanff begins writing to the London shop in search of rare old books at an affordable price. Her forthright and sometimes sassy prose clashes comically with Doel's stodgy English manners. Though initially defensive, Doel softens with the delivery of regular parcels filled with food sent by Hanff to relieve the shortages that still afflict postwar England. Eventually, the letter writers achieve an easy camaraderie that is grounded in an overwhelming love of books. Over the more than 20 years depicted in the play, Hanff starts planning trips to London a dozen times but is derailed by one complication or another. Through these complications, and the comings and goings at Doel's bookshop, we grow to understand and care about these two anachronistic individuals.

Moore is as naturally suited to the role of Hanff as could be imagined. Her New York accent never wavers, and neither does her saucy good humor. Hanff has an edginess to her, seen in her tirades against the occasional substandard book she receives, but this is softened by her abundant generosity. Moore captures it all with assurance. Her performance is matched perfectly by McCullough who completely embodies the reserved, somewhat starchy Doel. Watching the actor fitfully peel layers of formality away from his character to reveal the human being beneath is a joy to watch.

Gau has expertly chosen the rest of the cast. Amy Newell and Crystal Oakley share a winning chemistry as two clerks who also become involved in the correspondence with Hanff. Eric Mays, as Bill Humphries the mail boy, has an awkward physicality that provides the occasional visual joke.

The nicely cluttered set designed by Lin Heath naturally separates the two letter writers, while maintaining a cohesive look. Special mention should be made of prop master Carol Husband who litters the stage with authentic books.

There is a slight rambling quality in the last few scenes. But like a good friend who overstays his welcome, this delightful play easily overcomes its very few deficiencies, prompting new appreciation for the well-written, heartfelt, pen-and-paper kind of mail.

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