The Grand Manner, by A. R. Gurney starring Kate Burton as Katherine Cornell is an affectionate, harmless, nostalgic and pleasant evening of good old fashioned story telling through the eyes of a smart, young theatre fan (the young Pete Gurney) who is not at all afraid of becoming a “theatre creep”. His father’s words to describe most people infected with the theatre bug.
Good for him. He is still unabashedly in love with the theatre and The Grand Manner is a lovely valentine to that old school of acting that Miss Cornell was known for and that Miss Burton could have a bit more of.
It is loosely based on an actual meeting backstage in the Green Room that the 16 year old Pete (a knowingly innocent Bobby Steggert) has finagled with Katherine Cornell (a beautifully gowned, gracious and giddy Kate Burton – making a grand entrance!) by having his grandmother write a letter of introduction. He has journeyed from his boarding school to New York to see Miss Cornell in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. He has a scholastic knowledge of the play and a deep rooted affection for theatre in general and Miss Cornell in particular. It helped immensely that they are both from Buffalo. A city that Mr. Gurney hails from and has written about in many of his plays and that Miss Cornell relishes speaking about.
In a short prologue where Pete speaks directly to the audience he gets his autograph straight off. Then off we on an imaginative journey as to what would have happened had he been asked to stick around, have a coke and mingle with Miss Cornell, her aide-de-camp and lover Gertrude Macy (an efficiently butch Brenda Wehle) and her foul mouthed homosexual husband and director Guthrie McClintic (Boyd Gaines), acting more in the “grand manner” than Madame herself. Lots of good stuff here that basically goes nowhere.
They are to attend a party hosted by Pat Weaver at 21 where this new fangled idiom called television will be discussed with the likes of The Lunts and Mary Martin. Miss Cornell is at a cross roads it seems. Her style of acting is no longer acceptable, she herself feels uncomfortable, nay trapped in her part on stage and in life and a young guy named Marlon Brando has jumped barge to appear in A Streetcar Named Desire down the block.
There are lots of factual tidbits and some humorous lines and the acting is quite good all around but it lulls rather than excites. It is also surprising that when the young Pete discovers all the gayness in the Green Room that he barely bats an eyelash. And when Guthrie offers Pete a job as his personal assistant to teach his things “from the bottom up” and talks of nude beaches – we get the picture but Pete still doesn’t flinch. Odd.
It’s quietly directed by Mark Lamos and is given the Lincoln Center Mitzi E Newhouse elaborate production that we have become accustomed to. More grand than The Grand Manner itself.
www.lct.org Through August 1st. Photo: Joan Marcus