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Gurney's Grand Manner

"I think my plays show the contrast between the ways we used to live, or the ways we could live, and the ways that we do live today," says A. R. Gurney.

The Grand Manner, A.R. Gurney’s love song to the great days of Broadway and touring productions with stars like Katharine Cornell, has received mostly favorable reviews. These notices have universally admired its characteristic Gurney-esque grace, charm, and reserve, tinged with bittersweet sentiment.

Ben Brantley of the New York Times inevitably quibbled with internal consistencies in Gurney’s fantasy of what might have happened if, as a high school student in 1948, he had accepted a Coca Cola and lingered backstage when the great Cornell invited him to do so, after a performance of Antony and Cleopatra.

I, by contrast, soaked in every moment in a state of rapture and was sad when I sensed it was about to be over. I found its message to be moving and important, and was especially impressed by Bobby Steggert as young Pete Gurney. This is one of those performances that makes you forget you are not watching real life. Kate Burton is exquisite as Katharine Cornell. Known for projecting humanity onstage, her interactions with Steggert are tremendously moving in their tender intimacy and almost motherly affection. Brenda Wehle is a powerhouse as Cornell’s assistant, lover, and future biographer, Gertrude Macy, and Boyd Gaines is perfection as flamboyantly over the top Guthrie McClintic, who makes a bold pass at young Gurney in the fantasy plot.

Some have found Gaines’ performance and the scripting of the role to be too outrageous. I do not. McClintic was a man who would take a young man from the cast of The Barretts of Wimpole Street to a Turkish bath with him after the first scene, return with him in time for the actor’s final entrance, and would then tell his wife that he had been in the audience the entire time. He was an outrageous man.

Gurney, speaking by telephone from his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, laughs when I ask him about the Times reviews:

“The Times never quite likes me,” he admits. “Frank Rich called The Dining Room ‘white bread.’

“And,” he adds, “it sometimes confuses them when my plays become popular all across the rest of the country!” (The review in Variety predicts that “any venerable subscription theater cast in the Lincoln Center Theater mold (Guthrie, anyone? Goodman?)” will welcome The Grand Manner.

Indeed, it seems that the New York Times always admires Gurney plays retrospectively. The paper will hold The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour up as model Gurney plays, conveniently forgetting that they had withheld approval when the shows were new.

“They did like Sylvia very much,” says Gurney, almost with a note of regret.

I always feel, coming from Buffalo, that I am better prepared to appreciate a new Gurney play.

“There might be something to that,” says the playwright. “I think about some of the advantages I had coming from Buffalo, which was then and is still today very much like small town. When I was going to the Nichols School, my friends and I all went to the same barber, the same dentist, the same dancing school. The Erlanger Theatre was going strong then so we had access to great theater, and to a great art gallery.”

Buffalo famously gave Gurney a profound sense of place and civility. As a consequence, being out of place and the loss of civility are constant themes in his plays—including The Grand Manner, in which he fantasizes Cornell feeling that Cleopatra is the wrong role for her and that her acting style has become out of date.

“I think my plays show the contrast between the ways we used to live, or the ways we could live, and the ways that we do live today,” says Gurney. “In this play, I use Katharine Cornell’s acting style to represent this.”

There are other dimensions of Gurney’s plays that demonstrate the contrast he describes. The genteel handling of homosexuality among Buffalo’s upper class is a recurring event in several Gurney plays. Many have commented on his handling of the sexuality of Katharine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic in The Grand Manner.

“After Stonewall,” recalls Gurney, “so much changed. There was no longer any such thing as an ‘extra man.’ That’s what we called a bachelor who could be invited to match up with a single woman at a dinner party, for instance. Suddenly people who used to be bachelors were perceived to be gay, and many older gay people did not welcome this. My cousin, Bill Gurney, and his partner, for instance, found it very limiting.”

In The Grand Manner, the contrast that Gurney emphasizes is between the comfortable gay sexuality that Cornell, Macy, and McClintic live in private, and contradictory discomfort over Cornell performing sexually explicit Shakespearean language. In the play, young Pete points some cuts in the script out to Cornell who, not perceiving herself to be a prude, is alarmed. She fears that this element of repression unfairly relegates her to an obsolete past, and fantasizes herself playing roles like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

“The script originally had references to Arthur Miller too,” says Gurney, “but I cut those later. It think the point had been made.”

In the concluding lines of the play, Bobby Steggert as Pete Gurney himself comes forward and sums up the evening with a concluding speech. He steps out of time, and out of place for a moment, and we sense that the actor who has been representing the teenaged Gurney now speaks for the contemporary Pete Gurney as he says, “Okay, I made lots of that up, but some of it is true, and I still have this signed souvenir program to prove it. And sometimes when I get down about the future of the theater I take it out and look at it, and I feel better.”

I ask Gurney the inevitable question—at that moment he talking about something more than the theater, isn’t he? He is using Katharine Cornell to represent a larger cultural ideal.

“That’s right, I am,” he reveals. “And while I do not think that things like theater and daily civility can solve the problems of Afghanistan, I do think that smaller events in our daily lives are very significant in their way.

“I think, for instance, about small things like cell phones and the role of technology in our lives. For example, I am walking my dog, and I come up upon another person who is also walking his dog, but who is on his cell phone. And the dogs greet each other and interact, but this other fellow who is talking on his cell phone never even looks in my direction.

“I have even seen parents walking with young children while talking on their cells phones! They think they are maximizing their time, I am sure, but I think they are neglecting the child who is just trudging along after them in silence. That is not the way I grew up. As time passes and times change, it is important to remember what is really important.”