Any venerable subscription theater cast in the Lincoln Center Theater mold (Guthrie, anyone? Goodman?) might welcome “The Grand Manner,” A.R. Gurney’s bittersweet love song to the old days and ways. The scribe fleshed out this backstage play from an encounter he had as a lad with Katharine Cornell in 1948, when that grande dame was starring on Broadway in “Antony and Cleopatra.” Despite a patina of conflict between Cornell and director Guthrie McClintic — her “gay as a goose” partner in their “lavender marriage” — the show is a gentle sigh for the lofty style and civilized manners of a bygone era.
Helmer Mark Lamos, artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse and the good friend of every Gurney play he ever met, has not lost his touch for the scribe’s articulate dialogue and famously reserved style. The play may be a delicate wisp of a thing, but the artfulness of the Lincoln Center Theater production reassures us that it won’t float away.
Kate Burton (“The Constant Wife”) is all gracious charm as Cornell, a loyal Buffalo girl who grants a backstage audience to young Pete (Bobby Steggert, as appealing as he was in “Ragtime”) when that hometown boy travels down from prep school to see her on Broadway. Greeting him in the green room of the Martin Beck Theater (a richly carpeted and warmly lighted museum setting of plush vintage furniture and show posters), “the First Lady of the American stage” offers the kid a Coke.
In real life, Gurney turned down the offer and beat it out the door. Here, he rectifies that error by granting Pete the courage to hold his ground. Stagestruck and innocent, but not entirely gullible in Steggert’s engaging perf, Pete accepts the Coke and sticks around, eager and open to new ideas and novel experiences.
Although Burton knocks herself out to be generous and kind, Cornell doesn’t teach Pete much about theater arts. He does get one valuable lesson from Gertrude Macy (in Brenda Wehle’s fiercely focused perf), Cornell’s general manager and longtime companion, who gives him the ultimate tip on how to address a stage actor. “All you need to do is compliment her on her performance,” she says.
The boy also soaks up the dirty little backstage secrets he learns from Cornell’s husband, McClintic (the dependably shocking and altogether charming Boyd Gaines), who lets the cat out of the bag about the couple’s unorthodox marriage. “The important thing I wanted to tell you,” he suavely informs Pete, “is that in the theater, you don’t have to sleep with women to love them.”
Titillating as these intimate revelations may be to the impressionable youth, Pete is more engaged — as are we — by Cornell’s candid admission that she feels alienated in the “new world” emerging from “that ghastly war.” It’s a world of “television and jet travel and Marlon Brando,” and one that has “no place for me and my goddamned grand manner.”
If Burton doesn’t show great anguish as she delivers this heartbreaking lament, it’s probably because Gurney doesn’t give her anywhere to go with it. After building to the moment with his customary finesse, this genteel stylist backs away without fully examining its emotional depth. Or its implications for those of us who are still sitting in grand old theater palaces, sadly pining for new plays written in the grand old manner.