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June 28, 2010

TT: Buffalo gal comes out

In the Greater New York section of today's Wall Street Journal, I review the world premiere of The Grand Manner, a new play by A.R. Gurney. It's a winner. Here's an excerpt.

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1101321226_400.jpgLike many other prolific artists, A.R. Gurney is unpredictably uneven. Some of his plays are concentrated and involving, others agreeable but slack, and the only way to know which kind you're going to get is to show up and find out for yourself.

When I heard that Mr. Gurney's latest play was a backstage fantasy about a youthful encounter with Katharine Cornell, I figured it would be one of his lesser efforts, a slightly sticky valentine to the actress whom Alexander Woollcott dubbed "the First Lady of the Theater." Not so. "The Grand Manner" starts out heavy on the charm, but Mr. Gurney pulls a switch on you, and all at once you realize that you're seeing an unexpectedly tough-minded portrait of an exceedingly complicated marriage.

Few now remember Cornell, who retired from the stage in 1961, for she appeared in only one Hollywood film, "Stage Door Canteen," preferring instead to act on Broadway and on the road with her touring company. Fewer still remember Guthrie McClintic, her husband, who directed the plays in which she acted. Most well-informed theater buffs know that both Cornell and McClintic were homosexual, but they took care to keep their private lives private, and so next to nothing is known about the exact nature of their relationship....

Mr. Gurney met Cornell briefly in her dressing room after a 1948 performance of "Antony and Cleopatra." He was a stage-struck 18-year-old who, like her, came from Buffalo, N.Y., and nothing much happened beyond the mere fact of their meeting, which is portrayed more or less accurately by Bobby Steggert and Kate Burton in the first scene of "The Grand Manner." Then Mr. Gurney backs up, starts over and spins an elaborately fictionalized version of the encounter, one in which he not only meets Cornell, the flamboyantly foul-mouthed McClintic (Boyd Gaines) and Gertrude Macy (Brenda Wehle), Cornell's hard-nosed business manager and offstage lover, but looks on in amazement as the members of this oddly sorted ménage à trois drop their masks of propriety and share with him their inmost hopes and fears....

The fact that Cornell, McClintic and Macy parade their sexual heterodoxies instead of hinting discreetly at them gives "The Grand Manner" an air of contrivance that lessens its believability. This is more than a quibble, but I hasten to add that it does little to diminish the play's sheer effectiveness, especially in so excellent a production....

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Read the whole thing here.

Here's a video of Katharine Cornell's appearance in Stage Door Canteen, directed by Frank Borzage and released in 1943:

Posted June 28, 2010 12:00 AM

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