As a New Hampshire boarding-schoolboy, A.R. Gurney (Pete to his friends) traveled to Manhattan on a weekend to catch fellow Bufallonian Katharine Cornell as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra on Broadway. In the green room after the show, he managed with minor difficulty to get her to sign his program.
Is there a play in such a minor encounter? On the evidence of “The Grand Manner,” at New York’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, no.
Gurney, a tireless contriver of comedies about WASP families, often reflecting his seemingly inexhaustible love-hate for his native town, has lately been running out of gas.
“The Grand Manner” is both a memory play gussied up into a fantasy and a nostalgia play for the theater of the past, when there were genuine Broadway stars and not merely luxury-class tourists from TV and Tinseltown basking in unearned worship.
In 1948, Cornell was still for many the First Lady of the Theater, even if Helen Hayes, Lynn Fontanne and Tallulah Bankhead were scarcely less in the running. But, in her early fifties, she was already a somewhat unlikely Serpent of the Nile, longing to shed her skin, and her Antony was the venerable Godfrey Tearle, more FDR lookalike than Roman leader and lover.
But Cornell still had the grand manner, propped up by the direction of her husband, Guthrie McClintic, and a lavish production. This is what Kate Burton, her present impersonator, for no shortage of visible effort, sorely lacks. Gurney has taken a humdrum episode and worked it up a into a cutesy quadrille for Cornell; Gert Macy, her general manager, personal assistant and lover; McClintic, her somewhat swishly fulminating director-husband; and the youthful visitor.
Gurney has duly boned up on Cornell’s career and the theatrical history, lore and gossip of the time. He even lipsmackingly outs the diva and the director, but mostly concentrates on the tired actress and an adoring schoolboy romancing and reminiscing about life in Buffalo, under the sternly disapproving but ultimately melting gaze of butch Gert and the fulminating Guthrie, who eventually tries to seduce his wife’s young fan.
Although Burton’s lack of stature becomes downright painful in the end (when she even more ineffectually re-enacts Cleopatra’s death scene), at least her supporting cast is helpful throughout. Bobby Steggert gives us a suitably boyish and stagestruck, but also precociously savvy and critical Pete; Brenda Wehle is an aptly watchful, toughly loving Gert and Boyd Gaines a somewhat taller and more virile but also drolly weepy McClintic.
John Arnone’s authentic green-room setting, Ann Hould-Ward’s opulent costumes and Russell H. Champa’s caressing lighting are grand enough. Mark Lamos has directed with remarkable insight and variety. But the writing, like the leading lady’s acting, remains effortful rather than grand.
At 150 W. 65th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.lct.org. Rating: **
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(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)