The Grand Manner, A.R. (Pete) Gurney's partially autobiographical but mostly fanciful reminiscence of his meeting in 1948 with Katherine Cornell (Kate Burton) and her husband, Guthrie McClintic (Boyd Gaines) is now previewing at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (opening night will be June 27). This is a small show with but four characters (Ms. Cornell, Mr. McClintic, Pete (Bobby Steggert) and Ms. Cornell's companion/assistant/secretary and presumed lover, Gertrude Macy (Brenda Wehle). It runs just 90 minutes with no intermission.
Those four characters are more than sufficient to tell this slight tale and 90 minutes more than enough time in which to do it. In the preview performance I attended, all four did a fine job in their respective roles but their performances, frankly, were not enough to sustain my interest. That was not their fault but was a reflection of the shortcomings of the play itself. There is no conflict, no real dramatic impact to this play and nothing to engage the viewer on any visceral level. Rather the play is a self-referent and slightly pretentious snapshot of Ms. Cornell, the greatest actress of her time, behaving in "the grand manner" employed in the theatre of that era, both on stage and off.
The production includes the timeworn structure of a play (Antony and Cleopatra) within a play but when you peel away its several layers, there is no real core there. It also includes today's seemingly obligatory references to lesbianism (Ms. Cornell's) and homosexuality (Mr. McClintic's) and while a case might be made that Mr. McClintic's sexual orientation had something to do with the play's plot, the allusion to Ms. Cornell's orientation seemed gratuitous and merely intended to titillate.