In The Grand Manner, A.R. Gurney Looks Back at Broadway's Past, and His Own

Lincoln Center mounts a story of stagestruck youth

The great actress Katharine Cornell (1893–1974), familiarly known to her fans and her intimates as "Kit," was born into a socially elite family based in Buffalo, New York. This makes her an inevitable subject for the playwright A.R. Gurney (b. 1930), familiarly known to his fans and his intimates as "Pete," who also comes from a leading Buffalo family, and whose plays, over the years, seem to be anchored increasingly in his consciousness of that city. His consciousness, not his recollections: Though Gurney's plays are often set in the past, and steeped in a keen sense of its effect on the present, they never replay it directly. Far from wallowing in nostalgic memories, he critiques them.

The critical self-awareness built into Gurney's dramaturgy comes from his anomalous position in theater history. He belongs to a "caught-between" generation of American playwrights (Romulus Linney, a similarly underrated artist employing similar tactics, would be another example). Raised in upper-middle-class respectability, and trained up to the standards of old-fashioned Broadway playmaking, these writers came to maturity just in time to see the upheavals of the '60s break the old Broadway forms to bits. Intelligent enough to realize that the old game could no longer be played, but unable to shake it off entirely, they found sneak-attack, postmodern ways to undermine both its conventional structures and the conventional mores they conveyed. Off-Broadway became their turf; they tended to make Broadway uncomfortable.

As its title indicates, The Grand Manner, like earlier Gurney plays, looks back on a now-legendary past, when things were ostensibly better. "Ostensibly" is the key word: Gurney loves nothing more than to subvert such assumptions from within. He starts this one, fetchingly, with a scene virtually announcing that the rest of the play will be a complete fabrication. In 1948, a theater-struck Buffalo teenager named Pete (Bobby Steggert) wangles permission to escape from his New Hampshire prep school for a night in New York, to see the great Cornell's latest production: Antony and Cleopatra, which his English class is currently studying. The family influence that gets him this permission also gets him an appointment to go backstage after the show and meet the star herself (Kate Burton). In the scene that Pete tells us "is pretty much what happened," the leading lady gives the boy a Coke, affects to remember his grandmother, autographs his program, and shoos him on his way. Not exactly the stuff of drama.

Wehle, Steggert, and Burton in a tale by a "caught-between" writer.
Joan Marcus
Wehle, Steggert, and Burton in a tale by a "caught-between" writer.

But reality is what you know as well as what occurs. The elaborate fiction that Gurney weaves, once he's finished showing us this factual non-event, comes as much from research as from his flair for the fanciful. Though Cornell frequently played women driven by heterosexual passion to murder or suicide, in private she was one of Broadway's leading lesbians. Her lover, Gertrude Macy (Brenda Wehle), was also the redoubtable general manager of her productions, while her equally homosexual husband, Guthrie McClintic (Boyd Gaines), served as her director, acting coach, live-in therapist, dramaturg, and casting director. McClintic had a first-rate eye for young talent as well as for young men, steering Cornell through three triumphant revivals of Shaw's Candida, choosing unknowns like Orson Welles and Marlon Brando to play opposite her as Marchbanks. His Antony and Cleopatra cast included such later-familiar names as Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, Joseph Wiseman, and Charlton Heston.

By 1948, however, Cornell's genteel mode of stage glamour had begun to look somewhat dated. Her sensibility and McClintic's belonged to an age when tragic passion maintained a degree of decorum; indecorous behavior belonged to low comedy, and Cornell was no comedian. Her dark-complected, exotic looks had been arresting in the 1920s. Shaw, after her initial success as Candida, expected her to resemble a modest British suburban matron, and was stunned to find instead, in her photographs, "a gorgeous dark lady from . . . the southernmost corner of the Garden of Eden. If you can look like that, it doesnt matter a rap whether you can act or not."

But two decades later, audiences had gotten used to her surprising looks, and questions about her acting had begun to matter. Younger critics began to complain, as Eric Bentley did of her Jennifer in a 1941 revival of Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, "Miss Cornell just played her usual grande dame." The reviews of Antony and Cleopatra were more polite than enthusiastic. Some even suggested, delicately, that passion, Cleopatra's essence, was not Cornell's strong suit. And its absence was dramatized by contrast when, a week later, her former Marchbanks, Brando, opened a few blocks away in A Streetcar Named Desire. In the new postwar world, the Cornell-McClintic idea of theater was fading rapidly. By the time of the duo's last major effort, Christopher Fry's The Dark Is Light Enough in 1955, Bentley would declare openly, "A Guthrie McClintic production is not theatre. It is not even bad theatre."

The extent to which Cornell knew this is unclear. Writing his ornate, affectionate caprice, Gurney makes her half-aware of it, and makes his adolescent self the unwitting bearer of the bad news—at the same time making him an innocent target for McClintic's predations. The hidden agendas of conflicting aesthetic approaches and conflicting sexual preferences become twin eggbeaters whipping up this light, fluffy meringue of a play—which, when finally dished up, turns out to pay tribute to both the actress's old-style theatrical grandeur and the budding playwright's puckish, trickily cynical, new-style approach. Utterly trivial, its 95 diverting minutes are dappled, lightly, with a remarkable range of serious flavors.

Under Mark Lamos's direction, the likeable four-person cast skillfully keeps the flavors swirling. Burton and Steggert, asked to carry the main burden of Gurney's thought, come off slightly indecisive compared to Wehle and Gaines, who, under less pressure, give their roles more specificity, and also appear to be having a great deal more fun. Gaines, encouraged by the script to rant and gesticulate, seizes the chance with such flair that at several points I thought I was watching the late Ellis Rabb—an actor-director who practiced the grand manner in its full flamboyance.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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