Katharine Cornell, who was considered one of the greatest stage actresses of her generation, is paid loving tribute in A.R. Gurney’s latest play, The Grand Manner, now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater. Despite some flaws in both the play and Mark Lamos’ production, this is an entertaining 95 minutes that sheds a little bit of light on the grandeur of a true star, who is perhaps not as well remembered as she should be.
The play, which is inspired by an actual meeting the young “Pete” Gurney had with Cornell, takes intentionally self-conscious liberties with the facts to spin a breezy yet at times poignant tale of a woman who feels past her prime and a man who is just starting to come into his own.
It is 1948 and Pete (Bobby Steggert) has come down from his New England boarding school and made his way backstage following a Broadway performance of Antony and Cleopatra to meet the famous actress (portrayed by Kate Burton) and get her autograph. He uses the fact that they’re both from Buffalo to ease his access, as Cornell retained a fondness for her hometown (as does Gurney, since it figures prominently in a number of his plays). However, Pete’s first interactions are with the production’s general manager and Cornell’s “personal assistant” Gertrude “Gert” Macy (Brenda Wehle).
Despite her success, we quickly discover that Cornell feels unsure of herself, and believes that a rising new crop of actors — exemplified by Marlon Brando — are making her brand of acting obsolete. She also claims to be “trapped in the wrong role” as Cleopatra and is looking for either reassurance or confirmation of her fears. At different points in the play, Pete provides her with both — sometimes to the annoyance of both Gert and Cornell’s husband and stage director, Guthrie McClintic (Boyd Gaines).
Steggert has a boyish charm that goes a long way in making some of the more overly expository sequences palatable. Yet, he also has a depth of feeling that shows through, and nicely displays differing levels of comfort (or discomfort) as Pete interacts with the three other characters, both separately and together.
Burton focuses on Cornell’s vulnerability and insecurity, only showing traces of the kind of sparkling charisma you might expect from such a grande dame. Wehle’s Gert is clipped and efficient, yet also demonstrates a bemused and even affectionate attitude towards Pete. Noticeably, the two women often touch or even embrace as they chat with the young man, signaling the true nature of their relationship.
Oddly enough, Gaines is the one whose outsized vocal and physical flourishes indicate a stereotypical notion of the “grand manner” of acting that Cornell fears she has come to epitomize. His McClintic shows no subtlety, not even in his attempt to seduce Pete, which comes across simply as crass and unsophisticated. It’s difficult to determine whether to fault the actor or Lamos for this character choice, but they’re probably equally to blame.
Despite working extensively at the Newhouse, Lamos has also not risen to the challenge of the three-quarter staging, as there are significant sightline issues at various points in the production. Most notably, the near ending of the play puts the entire focus on Cornell as she acts out of a scene from Antony and Cleopatra. Burton does quite nice work here, but that would be impossible for anyone on the far side of house left to take in, as she has her back to them the entire time.