As a teenager, playwright A.R. Gurney (Mrs. Farnsworth, The Cocktail Hour, Sylvia) once met the legendary actress Katharine Cornell backstage after a performance of Antony and Cleopatra. He was so enthralled with her and the power of theater that he memorialized it in this, his latest play (2010), brought to us in a bumpy version by Edge Theatre.
There are a few things I know about Miss Cornell. She was constantly referred to as the "first lady of the American stage." She helped get the works of Shaw and Anouilh out into the public. Her theatrical style was immensely versatile and full of depth, since her roles were later filmed by such diverse actresses as Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo and Bette Davis. Famed for her dark beauty, she was a lesbian in a "lavender marriage," as they used to say, with gay director/producer Guthrie McClintic.
But what I really know is that Katharine Cornell would never have been caught dead in the dress Bonnie Hewett, who makes a very fine Cornell indeed, wears for her last entrance. That peek-a-boo creation might be appropriate for Colbert as wicked Poppea in DeMille's Sign of the Cross, but Miss Cornell would never, ever wear such a provocative showstopper in 1948, when this play is set. Cornell was of the theater, not burlesque.
Other than this major gaffe, Edge Theatre sews up Gurney's little comforter of a play and wraps us in its warm embrace. Directed by Jim Tommaney (also a Houston Press theater reviewer), the play is far from Gurney's best, but it's a lovely valentine to theater days of yore, when great actresses could bemoan the passing of their own time and let spill all sorts of intimate secrets they would never tell anyone.
Young Pete (Alex Randall), who lies to get backstage after the performance, is all too quickly brought into the seedy confidences of both trusted adviser Gert (Mary Westbrook) and salacious McClintic (John Kaiser), who sets his gimlet eyes on the youngster. It's left up to us to assume McClintic's ultimate intentions, whether he really wants to seduce the kid or scare him away so the couple can get to the party after the performance. And as Gurney must be aware, nobody in 1948 would so readily admit their gay history to a stranger, not even those whose personal history was so open to everyone else in the business, as was Cornell and McClintic's. In theater, "we say just what we think," Cornell instructs Pete. That mantra was not usually followed when sex was discussed.
Cornell's at a crisis. The "new" theater is aborning, and reference is made to rising, spark-inducing actors like Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston, and playwrights like Tennessee Williams, whose work demands a less "grand manner" in style. She feels out of gear, and this prompts her to taunt McClintic about retirement and her lack of interest in the encroaching maw of TV. Innocent Pete is used as sounding board and punching bag for their minor contretemps, and the couple solves the crisis without too much drama or excitement. It's still fun to hear reference to the birth of the Tony Awards, Milton Berle, and Sardi's.
Hewett, saddled with a bad black wig that doesn't help her first impression, turns on the wattage as theater's leading light. Cornell was known for her down-to-earth attitude and never being pretentious or phony, and Hewett lets just the right amount of star quality shine forth. She's still a star, lest we forget, and some of her bass-deep outbursts ring true to divahood. As lamb Pete, Randall is convincingly wide-eyed and open-mouthed to be in her presence, even as he knits up a neat little story of his own to wheedle himself into the lair. He has a neat way of reacting backward whenever Kaiser lurks over him, getting cozy on the couch.
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The play's never lewd or even too taunting, so we don't really feel that Pete needs protection or is out of his league. He does just fine in the lion's den. Kaiser is appropriately oily, even in his dapper gray gloves and top hat. He knows insinuation better than anyone, and how to play it. As confidante and business manager, Westbrook never quite gets comfortable in the brittle yet knowing role of Gert, although she's dressed in the best period style for costuming and wig.
The Grand Manner is all about style and the illusion of theater. It should be smooth and effortless, like those "new" revolving sets McClintic is so wild about. While there are too many bumps along the way in Edge Theatre's production, and some are supplied by Gurney, we shouldn't see the machinery.
Gurney's tale of theater past plays through December 11 at Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch. To purchase tickets, call 832-894-1843.