LOVE LETTERS -- (Through Nov. 11 at the National Theatre)

"Love Letters" is not really a play. It is two actors -- in this case E. G. Marshall and Colleen Dewhurst -- sitting side by side at a table, reading from letters sent between the fictional Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, who met in second grade in 1937. Still, playwright A. R. Gurney, the bard of the plaid pants and martinis set, has created a moving and funny chronicle of love among the WASPs. Dewhurst's husky, I've-done-a-lot-of-things-I-shouldn't voice is perfect for the wayward Melissa, the rebellious daughter of a family endowed with wealth but little affection. And Marshall is equally in tune with stuffy, righteous Andy, the soul of rectitude who does the right thing whenever he can. Gurney is particularly brilliant at capturing the great range of missives we send each other, from the awkwardness of a second-grader's thank-you note to the phonily intimate mass Christmas letter. In the end we unexpectedly find ourselves dabbing (discreetly) at tears, sorrowing at the loss of love and friendship.- Megan Rosenfeld

UNDER A MANTLE OF STARS -- (Through Nov. 25 at the Grace Episcopal Church)

One of life's guilty pleasures is soap opera and an outrageous parody of it by the late Manuel Puig ("Kiss of the Spider Woman") is enjoying its American premiere by the Contemporary Arts Theatre Company (CATCO). Discussing their latest domestic crises, Master (Carroll Carlson) and Mistress (Nancy Robinette) sit in their living room eagerly awaiting their new maid (because "without servants, there is no time for tragedy") and wondering about the whereabouts of Daughter (Kate Malin), who has just been dumped by her boyfriend and whose sanity and safety are in question. Before long a car door slams, the French doors open and in sweep an alluring couple in '20s-style evening clothes. What ensues is a constantly shifting, increasingly absurd roundelay of seductions, confessions, heinous crimes and mistaken identities. Like determined little gerbils racing 'round treadmills, Puig's characters never let up on their fantasies. And because the actors capture that freneticism so charmingly, we never want to let them go. This is one of the daffiest entertainments around.- Pamela Sommers