Gurney’s love letter to the theater

 A star, crossing
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  November 14, 2013

PASSING THE TORCH? As the golden age of theater ends, a new prospect arises. 

When Pete (Tristan Rolfe) was a teenage boarding-school student in 1948, he visited New York for a Broadway performance of Antony and Cleopatra, having arranged to afterward meet its star, Katharine Cornell (Denise Poirier), who grew up in his hometown of Buffalo. This encounter, young Pete narrates for us, would later develop into the play we are about to see. So opens The Grand Manner, A.R. Gurney’s semi-autobiographical love letter to and affectionate crash course in golden-age theater at the cusp of a new era’s entertainments. Good Theater offers a tender and lively production, under the direction of Brian P. Allen.

The story that Pete’s script weaves of his experience in Katherine’s green room (an evocative set of theater photos and clippings against wine-colored walls) is considerably more elaborate than what actually happened there. Instead of a brisk two-minute exchange with Katharine’s manager Gert (Maureen Butler) and the leading lady (which we see performed in three separate spots), Pete gets an intimate look at the constant reassurance Katharine requires from her husband and director Guthrie (Tony Reilly) and Gert, the sexual masking of all three, and — especially — Katharine’s melancholy sense of no longer being at the cutting edge of her art, of being “too grand” in manner for the aesthetics of the day.

The tones of Allen’s production are styled in the slightly elevated fashion of both memory and the theater itself: the theater people, rolling eyes and arching vowels across half-octaves, are the essence of Theatrical against plain, grinning Pete, a Platonic ideal (or just an older man’s re-imagining) of youth’s aw-shucks artlessness. Poirier’s Katharine revels in cultivated grandness that has become ingrained, even as she keens for another style. She is all gracious, vivacious charm when engaging her young guest, though you can see the alarm surfacing in her eyes as time and time again she’s spun back into her monumental self-doubts.

As her “good and close friend” Gert, Butler does a fine job balancing duty, amusement, and outright love. She’s especially fun while engaging laconically with Pete the innocent, and she has a lovely, quiet moment as Gert wells with awe for Katharine and her art. Guthrie joins them later, and, in Reilly’s portrayal, immediately injects bluster, vexation, and buffoonish menace into what has heretofore been a comfortably maternal (if often ironic) reception for Pete.

And Pete, of course, takes all of it in stride. The rail-thin Rolfe gives him the irrepressible spunk and buoyant good humor of a classic boy hero; I suspect his cheek muscles are sore from smiling by the end of each show. That makes his Pete all the more interesting in the few moments when the grin disappears: I love how his face goes stony and his voice flattens as he critiques Guthrie’s cutting of two mere lines from one of Cleopatra’s speeches.

Likewise is the play itself most interesting in its moments of ambivalence. The script tends to default to the pattern of Katharine’s self-doubts being reassured by the others’ praises, and it opens up for its characters when it departs from that default into more varied grays or anything off-color. Katharine and Gert are moving as they at once celebrate their love and lament having to hide it from the world; Pete shows new alacrity in negotiating Guthrie’s fondness for him; and the adults court dissonance as they discuss the new middle-class audience and the newcomer medium to theatrical storytelling: the television.

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