New York City Theater
"The Grand Manner"
“A. R. Gurney’s latest excursion into objective nostalgia, “The Grand Manner,” is neither “grand” nor “mannered” enough to emerge as more than an attenuated, leisurely, though heartfelt memory play. Based on a true event – Gurney’s teenage meeting with stage star, and fellow Buffalonian Katharine Cornell after a Broadway performance of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” – the play is a love letter not only to Cornell but to what she represented.
At least that’s what we get in a thesis speech in which Cornell realizes her grand manner is fading while the future lies with the likes of Marlon Brando, not to mention the U.N. and Jackie Robinson. The year is 1948, a year when the old order was giving way to the new in styles of acting and writing as well as in the post-war world at large. To reinforce her dinosaur status, Gurney has Cornell recreate Cleopatra’s final scene. We’re supposed to be touched by the signaling of an era’s end, but the reading is flat, neither awe-inspiring nor sad.
The first scene tells it like it was: prep-school Pete (that’s Gurney), preceded by an introductory letter from his grandmother, trains to New York to see Cornell and get her autograph as proof that he didn’t just skip classes. He gets what he came for and that would have been the end of it.
The rest of the evening, however, is a fantasy on what may have transpired if he stuck around. He may have been able to give his insightful critique of what he saw on stage and how it compared with the text he was studying. He may have been propositioned by director Guthrie McClintic (both McClintic and Cornell were married to each other but gay). He may have been encouraged by the actress to become not an actor as he wished, or a doctor as his father wished, but a playwright as really happened.
Much rings true. There was, indeed, a larger-than-life style of acting from such as Cornell, Maurice Evans, Judith Anderson and the Lunts. Yet many a more contemporary actor had his or her start with such stars: in the “Antony and Cleopatra” cast were Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach and Charlton Heston; Brando went from playing opposite Cornell in “Candida” to his breakout “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Gurney has Cornell echo both the actor’s eternal lament (“I’ve played so many people, I sometimes don’t know who I am”) and the theater’s allure (“The audience is my family”). He also gives pointers on what not to say about a play (that you “liked” it or it was “interesting”) and alludes to easy acceptance of lifestyles (“In the theater you don’t have to sleep with women to love them”).
But these are scattershots, appealing but not revelatory. Gurney is one of our more accomplished playwrights with a history of flavorsome and affectionate works, someone who acknowledges that he, too, is caught between old and new. But “Grand Manner” is skimpy on plot, mostly telling where it ought to be showing.
Director Mark Lamos is skillful but even he cannot give urgency to an inert evening (and his blocking of the Cleopatra speech is awkward). As Pete, Bobby Steggert is modest, astute and altogether winning. As Gertrude Macy, Cornell’s manager and lover, Brenda Wehle goes easy on the butch aspect, instead giving us a woman who is protective, wise and knows her position. As McClintic, Boyd Gaines projects more of the flamboyance one would expect from theater royalty than does Kate Burton as Cornell.
At her death, Shakespeare has Cleopatra says, “I am fire and air.” In “The Grand Manner,” the air is fine, but where’s the fire?
-- David A. Rosenberg
July 8, 2010