THE GRAND MANNER
By Roz Friedman
A. R. “Pete” Gurney says that he cannot stop writing plays and we are the better for his compulsion. In many of his plays, i.e. Buffalo Gal, Gurney does not just pay homage to his hometown of Buffalo, but to the theater, its workings, its sacrifices, its eccentricities. His latest jewel, The Grand Manner, directed amiably by Mark Lamos, the artistic director at the Westport Country playhouse, is a love letter to Katherine Cornell, the First Lady of the American Stage. She also came from Buffalo and loved it!
I was enraptured by its themes and the story based on this playwright’s memory of an actual event that took place in his life in 1948. At the outset, we meet a young man, Pete, who has traveled by train on an arduous journey from his private school in Concord, New Hampshire to New York on a mission. His class has been studying Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra to be exact, and he has received permission to attend a performance of that play on Broadway. Bobby Steggart, sweet and a little “nebishy” is Pete, the naïve, eager young man, whose grandmother from Buffalo has written a letter to Katherine Cornell. Pete only wants this star to sign his fancy $1 program to prove to his classmates and teachers he was there. In an added twist, he also invents a girlfriend.
For the next hour and a half, in the eclectically thrown together, mostly red green room, designed by John Arnone, warmly lit by Russell H. Champa, he learns a great deal about this delightful, complicated actress, played with charm and exquisite timing by Kate Burton. Dressed in Anne Hould-Ward’s gorgeous costumes, Burton as Ms. Cornell reveals that she while she is married to her only director, Guthrie McClintic, and returns his adoration, he is homosexual and she is a lesbian in love with her “great and good friend,” her assistant, Gert. When Gert asks Pete if he know what that means, he answers, no. The matter-of-fact Gert is acted with authority by Brenda Wehle, and the sophisticated, blustery, foul-mouthed McClintic is portrayed by Boyd Gaines. This remarkable actor, who has won top awards for disparate parts in dramas, comedies and musicals, is really playing against type here, but pulls it off.
Although Katherine Cornell toured the United States by bus, appearing to ecstatic crowds who waited long hours to see her, and did the same in Europe for GI’s right after the war, and was praised by actors like Helen Hayes, the Lunts, and Christopher Plummer, who says, “She gave the theatre the romantic quality it should have,” she feels she is not modern enough. Marlon Brando left her show to dazzle audiences in Streetcar Named Desire; Tennessee Williams would not cast her in one of his shows; and she has no interest in television, which is in its infancy. Kate Burton’s delivery of Cleopatra’s last speech honors her father, Richard Burton. He would be very proud. And so are we. We remember her very well when she was a student at the Yale School of Drama. Gurney taught for many years at M.I.T. and hidden within this complex plot of The Grand Manner is a lesson in how to truly understand Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. I can’t wait to read the play. At the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center.
This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO