Seen Off Broadway: John Arnone has done a great job transforming the Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center into the green room of the Martin Beck, circa 1948, for A.R. Gurney’s latest, The Grand Manner. The place is exactly like its protagonist, legendary grande dame Katharine Cornell—regal, but also fraying around the edges.
Gurney has based the play on his actual encounter with Cornell that year, when she was starring in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and it begins with a recreation of their brief meeting. As Cornell, Kate Burton enters, hilariously, in full queenly regalia, chitchats with the teenage “Pete” (the excellent Bobby Steggert, recently in the Ragtime revival and Broadway-bound again for Yank!) about growing up in Buffalo, their hometown, autographs a souvenir book, and then departs. In the next 90 minutes we see what might have happened had he lingered, with Pete becoming more intimately involved than he might have wished in the lives of Cornell, her husband and director, Guthrie McClintic (Boyd Gaines, supercilious and just this side of over-the-top), and her general manager and assistant Gert (a hard-edged Brenda Wehle) as he realizes his own calling as a playwright. We come to see that the three stage veterans are putting on an act of their own—Cornell and the flinty, protective Gert are lovers, and the blustery McClintic is homosexual as well, with designs on Pete as his next in a long line of “assistants”. This is more of a backdrop, however, to Cornell’s growing self-awareness that her florid style of acting is passé, as A Streetcar Named Desire draws crowds elsewhere on Broadway.
Under Mark Lamos’ direction this slender play makes for a pleasing summer diversion. Burton’s performance is one for all seasons, however. While not at all like the exotic actress in appearance, she digs into Cornell’s insecurity over her own obsolescence, correctly noting which of young co-stars—who included Eli Wallach, Maureen Stapleton, and Charlton Heston—would go on to a bright future as she resigns herself to her “grandmotherly” Cleopatra (as Pete innocently assesses the imperious side of her performance) and a life devoted to a theatre in transition. Cornell left no film or TV credits, but Burton (who, like the actress, had a triumph in The Constant Wife onstage) creates an amusing portrait, scaled to life-size.
Cornell complains about the noisy and expensive turntable scenery used in her show, which is the kind of thing audiences like to see after the spectacle-deprived war years, McClintic patiently explains. No such problems here, as The Grand Manner, belying its title, has been staged with more of an intimate tinge of glamour. It looks back to a time when theatre folk and theatre audiences alike dressed for the occasion, something costumer Ann Hould-Ward shows without ostentation. Likewise the show, an appealing miniature, has handsome, unfussy lighting by Russell H. Champa and a nice score and apt sound design by John Gromada. It runs through August 1.