The Kavinoky Theatre knows its mission and its audience, and it has hit the bull’s eye with THE GRAND MANNER. The Kav has mounted a lush production for the Buffalo- Niagara premiere of A. R. Gurney’s ode to the glory days of Broadway, and to our fair city’s considerable contribution to the Great White Way in the form of the “First Lady of the Theater”, actress Katherine Cornell.
Mr. Gurney is himself, of course, Buffalo’s most esteemed contribution to the art of playwriting. A celebrated author, Mr. Gurney has received a roomful of awards for his 35 or so plays. From early in his career, with LOVE IN BUFFALO (1958) the first musical ever produced at Yale, where he earned his Masters in playwriting, Mr. Gurney has mined the depths of his youth and his family in Buffalo to create a colorful, insightful and often touching catalogue of 20th Century WASP life in America.
The amazing thing about Mr. Gurney’s plays is that, while they often revolve around a familiar theme, no two plays are the same. There is not a more creative nor innovative playwright among his post-war peers. He always finds a new twist, a clever format, a way to warp time and space to keep the story fresh and appealing.
This gift, if you will, is not always apparent on the page, not a few actors I have encountered have said, upon the first reading of one of Gurney’s scripts, “It’s so corny ! It’s too schmaltzy… this could never fly.” (This writer had the same initial reaction to LOVE LETTERS, which I have happily performed many times.) And yet, Mr. Gurney knows best, because once his play takes on the three dimensions of a stage, once life and light and costumes are breathed into the characters, that corny kernel blossoms into a theatrical experience which almost never fails to genuinely bond with the audience.
So it is with THE GRAND MANNER, which starts with a simple and true story of Mr. Gurney’s youth, when, as a wide-eyed prep school student in 1948, “Pete” Gurney came to New York to meet the great Katherine Cornell, a fellow Buffalonian, who was starring on Broadway in “Anthony and Cleopatra”. Miss Cornell, who had received a letter of introduction from young Gurney’s grandmother, gladly met the Buffalo boy after a performance. Brief pleasantries were exchanged, the program was autographed, end of scene, end of story.
But Mr. Gurney takes that little thread and weaves a wonderful new tale, reimagining the encounter as a magical introduction to the backstage world of professional theatre, even as a primary launch site for his career as a playwright. It’s so simple, so clever and so Gurney.
The key to this play is finding an actor who can hold her own as Katherine Cornell. Now a fading memory, perhaps a bit like her hometown, Miss Cornell was once the greatest actress of her age, think Streep, Dench, and Mirren all rolled into one. Only the legendary Helen Hayes rivaled Cornell. G.B. Shaw purportedly wrote ” St. Joan” for Miss Cornell.
Fortunately, the Kav has their diva down in Barbara Link LaRou. One of a few local actresses who can really pull off a “star entrance”, Ms LaRou captures all the luminescence, the vulnerability, and yes, even the splendor required to recreate the
“Grand Manner “.
Sweeping onto the stage, Ms. LaRou truly enchants her audience. She is exotic and witty. Who could resist? Not young Gurney, for sure. Cast in the role of the budding writer, Andy Herr is perfect. He reminds one of a young Jimmy Stewart, and indeed there’s a playful connection to the film star along the way.
Mr. Herr has an easy manner, easy with his co-stars and easy with his own character, he rings very true, and helps to boost the play beyond its intentionally preposterous borders and right into the lap of the audience. They like him, they really like him.
Rounding out the capable cast is the ever dependable Eileen Dugan, in her umpteenth role at the Kavinoky (It’s over 40!) Also a respected director, Ms. Dugan, more often the star, knows exactly how to play a supporting role, and she hits the perfect chords with her performance as Gert, Miss Cornell’s brusque assistant. Part watchdog, part nanny, and so much more, Gert takes care of everything for Miss Cornell, and by that we mean everything (wink, wink, nod, nod .. say no more.)
Richard Lambert plays Cornell’s nominal husband, Guthrie McClintic, who is also her flamboyant manager and adviser. The couple shares everything but a bed, yet clearly this is a partnership based upon love and trust, and one which succeeded professionally as well. If Mr. Lambert is a bit over the top here, it fits nicely. McClintic’s attempted seduction of the callow young Gurney, scuttled by a suspicious Cornell, is hilarious and McClintic’s subsequent petulance is a joy to see.
Director Robert Waterhouse has struck the right pace, the play reaches cruising altitude quickly and sustains itself handily without an intermission. The actors are well served by a classic set design from David King, some terrific period costumes by Miss Cindy Darling, excellent lighting by Brian Cavanagh (I think Miss Cornell would have approved the lights in particular) and a wonderful sound design by Tom Makar. Great work all around.
As is so often the case with Mr. Gurney, the story dives deeply below its lovely, placid surface. Miss Cornell is aware of changing times, no longer the innovator, she has become “genteel”, she teeters on the edge of obsolescence, as mid-century theatre around her renews itself with the likes of Brando and Tennessee Williams. Television looms around the corner, and nothing will be the same.
Yet even as styles change, good writing and good story-telling will always survive, just as Mr. Gurney fantasizes the discovery of his own story-telling roots through Cornell’s eyes and encouragement. She sees that in him, and long after the real encounter, Mr. Gurney sees it too.
Unspoken though it may have been, their backstage tete-a-tete must have had a profound effect. We all remember our celebrity encounters, no matter how fleeting: Jackie O in an elevator, Johnny Carson in a restaurant, Carol Channing in a lobby, and what we might have said if we could do it over again.
Finally, as Miss Cornell swept off stage right one last time, we are reminded that celebrity itself is fleeting. One of my ushers at the Kavinoky had not made the connection between the star of this play and the Katherine Cornell Theatre at UB’s Amherst Campus, and no doubt she was not alone in this. Even in her beloved Buffalo, Katherine Cornell’s once brilliant star has dimmed.
And what of the author? While he still reigns as one of the nations most prolific and produced playwrights, one wonders if Mr. Gurney, now a grandfather many times over, has not made some wistful reference with THE GRAND MANNER, as Shakespeare did in The Tempest, to his own march of time.
THE GRAND MANNER, By A.R. Gurney, directed by Robert Waterhouse for The Kavinoky Theatre, through May 29, 2011.