The Grand Manner -- Theater Review

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In 1948, when playwright A.R. Gurney ("The Cocktail Hour," "The Dining Room") was a star-struck lad, he ventured backstage at a Broadway theater to meet the reigning actress of her era, Katharine Cornell, when she was starring in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra." The result was some polite small talk, the signing of a program, and then Gurney was sent on his way.

"The Grand Manner," the playwright's new work being presented at Lincoln Center, depicts this encounter in two fashions: first as it actually happened and then how he imagines it might have gone. The advantage to the former is that it's a whole lot shorter.

Instead, we are presented with a fantasia in which Cornell (Kate Burton) and the playwright's stand-in, dubbed Pete (Bobby Steggert), bond over their mutual heritage in Buffalo, N.Y. It isn't long before -- under the watchful eye of Cornell's mannish personal assistant, Gertrude (Brenda Wehle) -- the two are involved in an animated discussion about life and art.

Much is made of the fact that Cornell, who steadfastly refused all offers of a movie career, represented a style of acting, here called the Grand Manner, that quickly was being replaced by the more naturalistic likes of Marlon Brando. (Ironically, the two once co-starred in a production of Shaw's "Candida").

Brando is but one of the many names dropped during the sketch-like play, with prominent mention also made of such figures as the Lunts, Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan, among others.

Welcome humor and mild dramatic tension is provided with the arrival of Cornell's profane-speaking director-husband, Guthrie McClintic (three-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines), who takes an interest in the young male visitor that seems more than casual.

Although clearly meant as a nostalgic valentine to a style of theater that has long since disappeared, the play fails to provide much insight into either Cornell or her brand of acting, with the result that it feels insubstantial.

Not helping matters is the fact that, though she makes a game attempt, Burton is unable to suggest the elegant stylization for which Cornell was renowned. The character isn't really given enough to do -- she's offstage for long periods at a time -- and there's pretty much a vacuum in her absence.

Steggert and Wehle do well enough by their similarly underwritten roles, with only Gaines, given ample opportunity to chew up the scenery, making the most of it. Director Mark Lamos has provided an assured staging, and the elegant sets and costumes beautifully evoke the era.

But maybe in resurrecting this episode from his past, the playwright should have stuck to his memories and left well enough alone.

Venue: Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, New York (Through Aug. 1)
Playwright: A.R. Gurney
Cast: Kate Burton, Boyd Gaines, Bobby Steggert, Brenda Wehle
Director: Mark Lamos
Set designer: John Arnone
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: Russell H. Champa
Original music/sound designer: John Gromada
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