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The Grand Manner

Review by Tulis McCall
(21 Jun 2010)

Having seen this play and having read this play I can state with certainty that this script is thinner than gauze.

This is an autobiographical play recalling a trip that the author, A. R. Gurney - here as Peter (Bobby Steggert) - made from his school in New Hampshire. It was a pilgrimage really, all the way to New York to see Antony and Cleopatra (playing around the corner from A Streetcar Named Desire starring Marlon Brando). Katherine Cornell (Kate Burton), anointed the First Lady of Theatre along with her contemporary Helen Hayes, was Cleopatra. Pete, like Cornell, was from Buffalo, and in those days that was enough to get an audience with the star. Cornell entertained Pete for upwards of three minutes, enough time to offer him a Coca-Cola and then remember she didn't have enough time to watch him drink it. She signed his program and bid him a gracious, grand adieu.

That meeting has been floating around Gurney's head for 60 or so years. And he (and Pete) wondered if he might make it into a play. Now he has, and the bad news is that the 90 minutes that make up the fantasy are less interesting than the three minutes on which it is based.

This is a sort of travelogue through the theatre's past. We hear that Charlton Heston has a small part in Cornell's production. The Tony Awards were new. Marlon Brando had been offered the part of Antony but chose Streetcar instead. Pat Weaver at NBC believed that television could be a new venue for great theatre. Mary Martin wanted to play Peter Pan. The Lunts were charming and intimidating.

And most of all we learn that Cornell saw herself as someone who should be put out to pasture along with her "Grand Manner," and that the world was making it self ready for the new generation, the Jackie Robinson's and the Pete's of the world. Even though she was 25 years away from her final curtain she was feeling tired and insecure. Despite the love of her "great and good friend" Gert Macy (Brenda Wehle) and her gay husband Guthrie McClintic (Boyd Gaines), she felt a little removed and tired of it all.

Well, that is what Gurney fantasizes. He also fantasized that each of these three people opened up to Pete and told him secrets they didn't normally share with the public. Why? Who knows. It is all part of the implausibility of the play.

The only action that takes place comes in the scene where McClintic tries to pick up Pete, who is too naïve to understand what is happening. When Cornell realizes what is happening she puts a halt to it - because Pete is from Buffalo, and exceptions must be made somewhere.

Other than that it's a perfectly still evening without a touch of grand anything. Burton seems too honest to be grand. From the reading I have done, Cornell was a big proponent of grand. Martha Graham, wrote: "One evening Kit spoke of making an exit.'Martha, when you exit take everything with you, even the grand piano if there is one on the stage.' That is what Katharine Cornell could do, strip a stage leaving the audience a little forlorn and eager for her return."

There is no trace of this woman in Gurney's text. His fantasy is watered down, as though he were trying to make an honest woman out of Cornell. So he settled for something mediocre, which is no way to treat a gal, especially one of our glorious theatrical ancestors.

(Tulis McCall)

"Directed with low-key, spark-free leisureliness."
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"Like soaking in a warm, soothing nostalgia bath for an hour and a half."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

"The writing, like the leading lady's acting, remains effortful rather than grand.
John Simon for Bloomberg

"A good deal to savor in this literate, civilized, and mature work."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage

"While it's hard to deny the slightness of "The Grand Manner," it's also engaging."
Robert Feldberg for The Record

"Amiable new play."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

"Beautifully acted production ."
Jennifer Farrar for Associated Press

"Thin backstage memory play."
Frank Scheck for The Hollywood Reporter

"A gentle sigh for the lofty style and civilized manners of a bygone era."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Post - Bloomberg - Back Stage - The Record - Newsroom Jersey - Associated Press - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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