It’s probably not true that most major playwrights (if you’ll forgive the amorphous term) have at least one “love letter to the theatre” in their catalog, but at a casual casting about, it sure seems like it; and for those who may not yet or never had gotten around to it, A.R. (“Pete”) Gurney has several, the latest of which is The Grand Manner, currently at the Mitzi Newhouse in Lincoln Center.
The point of inspiration is a real-life visit that a college-age Pete (Bobby Steggert) made to “first lady of the theatre” Katharine Cornell, (Kate Burton), backstage of what was once the Martin Beck Theatre, in 1949, when she was appearing in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The actual visit (which he dramatizes for us by way of introducing the premise) was a snapshot: sweet, quick and only remarkable in the sense that it happened at all. But Gurney posits a longer visit, by way of offering a more intimate biographical portrait of the legend and those closest to her: longtime assistant Gertrude Macy (Brenda Wehle) and husband-director Guthrie McClintick (Boyd Gaines). You’d think that by having “shown” us the “reality,” Gurney would compromise the verisimilitude of the fantasy, but the charm of honesty seems to be in his favor, and we very quickly allow Pete to be that visitor who just shows up at the right time with the right “credentials” (he’s smitten with the theatre and comes from Cornell’s home town of Buffalo) to be accepted into the fold for an evening’s worth of candid observation.
My response to the play is itself a variation on a theme I’ve played before in these pages, and recently often enough that I fear seeming to “cop out,” but it’s impossible to say yea or nay to your attendance without factoring in your own particular sensibility to the mix. Personally, I was “done” with the play about ten or fifteen minutes into its “What if?” portion. I could see where Gurney was going with it—celebrating a bygone era, a bygone style of performer (one who performs in “the grand manner” rather than “realistically”) and even a bygone notion of celebrity (where theatrical stars were a kind of royalty)—and I thought he telegraphed most of his points-along-the-way fairly early, then dutifully hit them. However, a confection like this isn’t about that kind of “suspense”; indeed, to some degree the suspense involves anticipating what you already expect, because the joy is in discovering the details of execution—brush strokes and nuance. And for many, that will more than satisfy—my significant other, to name a significant one, was utterly taken with the play. And she wasn’t in anything even barely resembling a minority, from what I could tell.
And why should she have been? “Confection” evenings mostly require setting the tone and staying afloat (not to imply any of that is easy), and under the unobtrusive direction of Mark Lamos, The Grand Manner does both, its cast aiding and abetting with affectionate deliveries of familiar tropes: we’ve all seen the tough-on-the-outside but secretly soft guardian, but Brenda Wehle gives it an engaging energy; we’ve all seen the magnanimous star who is as insecure as she is sentimental, but Kate Burton—aided in no small measure by that round, pretty face and the dance of mischievous intelligence behind her eyes—embodies and radiates the charismatic wattage; and we’ve all seen the foul-mouthed director-husband whose seemingly untamed candor is camouflage for another kind of fragility—but Boyd Gaines gives us a guy whose brilliant creative fire is counterweighted by an unpolished transparency when he tries to manipulate, such that an inevitable predatory attempt at seducing someone other than his wife is more dopey than distasteful. And as for Bobby Steggert as Pete: Well, any actor playing a cipher, even one as good as he, is at the mercy of his playwright, because even if there’s a simple, positive intention informing the character arc (i.e. the desire to get Ms. Cornell’s autograph on a program), what defines the character arc is still the passive fascination of the observer. Let’s just say, then, that Gurney gives Mr. Steggert enough to keep him from getting lost, and that Mr. Steggert seizes upon what he has to create enough of a persona to more or less hold his own.