Benedict Cumberbatch, Edie Falco, Hugh Dancy and Tony-nominee Tom Hollander were among the famous faces reading famous – or should-be-famous – correspondence from the past at Friday night’s New York City debut of the two-night, Cumberbatch-produced Letters Live event, but it was an unbilled Rose McGowan reading her own incendiary and far-reaching “Dear Hollywood” missive from 2016 that gave an extra jolt to the show.

McGowan’s appearance at Manhattan’s Town Hall had been kept mostly under wraps – she tweeted a plug for the show a couple hours prior to the 8 pm start, but with no details – until the very moment the offstage announcer began the introductory remarks that preceded all of the performances, first describing the letter about to be read and then the actor who would read it.

“In October 2016,” the announcer said, “shortly after revealing she’d been assaulted by the head of a Hollywood studio, activist and author Rose McGowan published a letter to Hollywood which helped kickstart the MeToo movement. To read it, please welcome to the stage Rose McGowan.”

With applause and a gasp or two beginning before the “M” of that “McGowan” had gotten to the “G”, the actress, with her now-signature short-cropped hair, strode onto the stage and began by saying simply “The Letter. Dear Hollywood,” and then read, in a steady but nonetheless urgent manner, the following:

 

The inclusion of the McGowan letter was altogether fitting in a show that celebrates what it calls “literary correspondence” – letters resurrected from history (last night’s event included a Civil War soldier’s heartbreaking note to the woman he knew would soon be his widow) and the internet (Cumberbatch himself recited – acted, really – the hilarious “Dear Empress Hotel” letter that went viral just last month when a Nova Scotia man sought forgiveness for a long-ago incident in which he’d trashed a hotel room by inadvertently letting in a flock of defecating, drooling seagulls).

Letters Live, first staged in 2013 at the Tabernacle in London and subsequently produced elsewhere in England, Edinburgh and Los Angeles, was created by publishing house Canongate, with film and TV production company SunnyMarch soon joining to stage various iterations to, in part, benefit local literacy charities. Some proceeds from the two-night-only New York stagings (the second is tonight at Town Hall, 8 p.m.) go to 826NYC, an after- and in-school youth writing program, and the Entertainment Industry Foundation, which “raises awareness and funds for critical health, educational and social issues by harnessing the collective power of the entertainment community.” (Along with Cumberbatch, Jamie Byng is a producer).

 

Last night’s performers included Cumberbatch, McGowan, Falco, Dancy, Hollander, Cynthia Erivo, Uzo Aduba, Ben Shenkman, Amber Tamblyn, David Harbour, Phillipa Soo, DeWanda Wise, Clarke Peters and Louise Brealey. Cast previously announced for the two-night run – each show is different – also include Ian McShane, James Earl Jones, Katie Holmes, Kyle MacLachlan, Laurence Fishburne and Molly Ringwald, along with surprises.

Among the other highlights of the first night was Dancy’s mournful reading of the eloquent Civil War soldier’s farewell letter, Harbour’s very funny deadpan reading of a rejected Harvard applicant’s rejection of his rejection, and Hamilton actress Soo’s delighted recitation of a fan letter to the female cast from Meryl Streep. Falco did Dorothy Parker justice in a reading of the great wit’s barbed letter describing a hospital stay, and Hollander was an audience favorite as Simon Fallowfield, an 1866 Yorkshire farmer who sent a tone-deaf marriage proposal to a local lass (“If you will not accept of me I have another very nice woman in my eye…but I thought you would suit me mother better, she being very crusty at times.”)

At nearly three hours, Letters Live can be a bit too much of a good thing – an intermissionless two hours might be ideal – and anyone can quibble with some of the choices (I’d have rather Cumberbatch chosen to close the show with something other than Rebel Without a Cause screenwriter Stewart Stern’s overwrought, humblebrag letter of condolence to James Dean’s family), but the show’s quiet-brilliant concept, the cast’s enthusiasm and some words truly deserving of remembrance make Letters Live worth writing home.