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The Grand Manner

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kate Burton and Bobby Steggert.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Theatre stars may be ephemeral, but legends last forever. And when the two coincide - especially without the help of plentiful film or television evidence - you have the makings of a story too big, too magical, and too unbelievable for any medium other than the stage. There's no doubt that A.R. Gurney intended his new play about star and legend nonpareil Katharine Cornell, The Grand Manner, to function as just such a work. But, as shown in Mark Lamos's production at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, the legend seems to have missed her entrance.

The play's title says it all about how Cornell was perceived by critics and audiences during her five-decade career. Splashing into the New York scene in the 1920s, she was an early pioneer of articulate yet affected emotionalism that depicted not reality, but theatrical reality: a sense of life, the universe, and everything that could split the bricks at the back wall of the theater, but was unlikely to be mistaken for the humanity outside. With her husband-director-producer Guthrie McClintic, she produced and appeared in dozens of plays on Broadway and elsewhere that perpetuated this style well past its sell-by date.

In 1948, when Gurney's play is set, Cornell was already facing impossible competition from the Method-devoted Marlon Brando (who's recently opened in A Streetcar Named Desire) and the forward-thinking Tennessee Williams, whose daring dramas made Cornell's beloved repertoire of Shakespeare, Shaw, and The Barretts of Wimpole Street look mighty dusty indeed. Her project at that point, for example, was a revival of Antony and Cleopatra, which New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson described as "on the formal side and not without pedantry."

Those words are eerily appropriate for The Grand Manner itself, which attempts to fuse Cornell's old-world know-how with Williams' unique brand of "dream play" adventurousness, and only partly succeeds. Gurney did indeed visit Cornell backstage at the Martin Beck during Antony and Cleopatra, just as his stand-in here (named Pete, and played by Bobby Steggert) does, but he only spoke to her for a few minutes about their shared Buffalo upbringing, and left with her autograph and little fuss. But this wasn't exciting enough for Pete, who becomes determined to weave a more wrenching tale from these wispy threads.

In Pete's "corrected" version, Cornell (Kate Burton) is pure neuroticism, consumed by the belief that she and her production aren't good enough, and relying on both her "great and good friend" Gert Macy (Brenda Wehle) and her husband Guthrie (Boyd Gaines) to help her survive the run and a rapidly changing world. There's a lot more sex, too, with Pete hot for a girl who's waiting for him at a youth "watering hole," Guthrie hot for Pete, and Cornell and Gertrude hot for each other - relationships that, back then we're told, were only allowed to flourish in the eternally permissive theatre.

Pete's fantasy is unquestionably more elaborate. But by reducing Cornell to a bundle of contemporary nerves, Gurney diminishes the light of the "luminous" star he's trying to celebrate. This may make Cornell more psychologically real (and vulnerable) to us today, but it offers no glimpse of what codified her greatness at the time. That's the real story screaming to be told, and Gurney ignores it almost entirely in favor of a shallower and simpler slice of apparently a too-vanilla life. Film and TV can bring down to earth, but theatre must elevate to make its mark - here, it doesn't.

That's Lamos's most significant misstep, but it's a biggie - the production's alternating leaping and lurching through the story of how Pete met Kit are more distracting than damaging. But in this staging, you never understand the overarching point: John Arnone's set suggests a clash of temporal cultures, Ann Hould-Ward's deceptively straightforward costumes the warring of appearance and actuality. Such themes should suffuse everything else, as well, but typically feel far more ornamental than elemental.

You don't get a clearer perspective from the two central cast members. Steggert is delightful to watch, and cuts a sunnily energetic attitude during the show, but conveys no weight whatsoever - even of the made-up kind so common to 18-year-old boys who want to prove they know more than every adult in the room. It's a difficult role - more symbolic of an evolving America than representing a person worth knowing - and not one that caters to Steggert's chief strength of embracing confliction head on (as he demonstrated last season in the Off-Broadway musical Yank!).

Burton is only slightly more advanced: Her urban-Everywoman air leads to the sort of downplaying that can make her a magnetic fixture of some roles, but probably shouldn't be anywhere near any play with the word "grand" in the title. There's nothing grand about her, which is partially the point - the Cornell we knew wasn't just a creature of the theatre, but a creation of it - but doesn't sell the central premise of a woman who etched her every appearance onto your memory. She comes across as an eager aunt wanting to tell you of the fun she had on her latest singles cruise, not a personality too expansive for anything but the stage to contain.

Gaines, on the other hand, communicates exactly that quality in the fiery, foul-mouthed McClintic, sweeping with his every step and threatening to crumple the Newhouse in his hand whenever rage or disappointment overtake him. He feels like a true man of the theatre, in the classical - almost stereotypical - sense. (Any chance we might get a play with him as, say, Edwin Booth?) Wehle presents an unflagging picture of devotion, and she makes Gert both stern and lovable as the keeper to Cornell's gate, doing her utmost to guarantee the star will only be remembered the way Gert wants her to be.

Eventually, however, even the staunchest caretakers must step aside and let time, history, and luck run their courses. The three seldom work to impenetrable advantage here, ensuring that you forever view this as a lightweight rumination rather than a soul-filled tribute to a now-dead artistry. That's enough for the play to succeed as entertainment, but hardly as a profound examination of what makes stars different from the galaxy surrounding them. For that, you'd need at least a telescope. Good intentions aside, The Grand Manner isn't much more than a magnifying glass.

The Grand Manner
Through August 1
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street (Between Broadway and Amsterdam)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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