July 10, 2010

"The Grand Manner" Isn't Quite Grand Enough

Like most theater junkies, I’ve got a jones for backstage plays.  So there was no way I was going to miss The Grand Manner, playwright A.R. Gurney’s autobiographical memory play about meeting the legendary actress Katharine Cornell that is playing at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse theater until Aug. 1. 

Grand dames pretty much ruled the American stage during the first half of the 20th century. At one time or another, Ethel Barrymore, Lynn Fontanne, Helen Hayes, and Eva Le Gallienne  laid claim to the title of “First Lady of the American Theater” but perhaps the grandest of them all—and the one I knew the least about—was Katharine Cornell.

I’d seen the others in the occasional movie, the odd TV show episode and even on PBS documentaries (earlier this year my husband K and I saw a particularly good one about Fontanne and her husband Alfred Lunt). But Cornell only made three filmed appearances and those in cameos that only hint at the stage magic that drew ardent fans when she barnstormed the country performing Chekhov, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Shaw and her signature role as the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (click here to see Cornell's brief appearance in the movie “Stage Door Canteen”).

That creates a bit of a problem for Gurney, known to his friends and in the play as Pete. Apparently worried that contemporary audiences won’t know who Cornell is, he spends far too much of his 90-minute play on clunky exposition. But the bigger problem is that Gurney, who says he has waited 60 years to write this play, isn’t sure what his story is. 

In a brief prologue, the Pete character explains that the real meeting in 1948 lasted just about five minutes.  The young fan and the star traded a few niceties about their mutual hometown Buffalo, she signed his Playbill and that was it. So Gurney imagines how the meeting might have gone if he’d been able to stay longer. But, alas, not much happens then either.

That’s too bad because Cornell’s life offers lots of dramatic material and The Grand Manner alludes to several of those possibilities but doesn't flesh them out. There’s Cornell struggle to remain relevant as the genteel manner of acting that made her famous began to lose ground to the rougher naturalism championed by Marlon Brando and other Method actors. There’s the inherent tension in how Cornell and her husband and director Guthrie McClintic managed to maintain a loving marriage despite the fact that they were both gay and sexually attracted to others. I would love to have seen either of those plays.

But this one might have worked better had Kate Burton, who plays Cornell, been able to convey the grand manner that the older actress was known for and that gives the play its title. Burton is a fine actress in her own right but in interviews this daughter of Richard Burton and stepdaughter of Elizabeth Taylor prides herself on being down-to-earth and she chooses to play Cornell that way (click here to read an interview Burton gave Theatermania.) It’s a valid choice but I can’t help thinking that the play might have had more energy had she been more highfalutin' (click here to see an excerpt from the play).

The other cast members come off better.  Bobby Steggert brings his usual boyish charm to young Pete (click here to read an exchange between him and the playwright) and Brenda Wehle is appropriately tart as Cornell’s assistant and lover Gertrude Macy. Boyd Gaines almost saves the day with his deliciously flamboyant portrayal of McClintic.

So, should you see it?  Well, Red (which won the Tony for Best Play and which I enjoyed but never got around to reviewing) closed last week and Fences
(which won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play and which I loved but never got around to reviewing) closes tomorrow so there aren’t a lot of other straight play options.  Plus theater history buffs will enjoy The Grand Manner's inside references, even down to the photos hanging the wall of the set. 

And seeing The Grand Manner provides the chance to pick up The Lincoln Center Theater Review, a terrific but undervalued quarterly about Lincoln Center productions that out does itself this time around with smart articles about Cornell, Burton and the burdens and rewards of being a leading lady of the theater. It’s truly grand.

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