Great Moments in New York Theater: Kate Burton et al in The Grand Manner
Only this week I was writing about how much I love Kate Burton and how much I love plays. How synchronistic for me to walk into Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi Newhouse space last night, sandwiched by Pat and Hunter, where I sighed at the sight of John Arnone’s set for THE GRAND MANNER, A.R. Gurney’s new play about theatrical legend Katharine Cornell. It was extremely fitting that we would be seeing this show together because my husband is a student of the lives and work of historical theatrical figures, pouring over biographies about Moss Hart, Laurette Taylor, Alec Guiness, Tyrone Guthrie (who is purported to be my great uncle, though I have no proof and all of my aged relatives who would know are, now, dead); and, I imagine, after this he will be reading about Kit Cornell (somewhere we have her autograph on a Playbill). And our Hunter has a passion for plays and theatrical history and roles that would suit him. I am determined to see this play produced somewhere with he and Penny Fuller (so is he, frankly). This play had been on our radar since we read about it, while it was in rehearsals. Thank God we kept our eye on it and got tickets before the rather mixed reviews came out and the usual LCT extension didn’t happen; because it was a truly magnificent night at the theater.
Oh, that Arnone set! It sits so beautifully in the Mitzi (one of our favourite spaces), welcoming lovers of the theater into the past for a glimpse at what it was like in the Golden Age of Broadway (I think – I’m never quite sure what the exact years are when people refer to the Golden Age of Broadway; but when the characters in the play talk about the Lunts, Mary Martin and Helen Hayes, it sounds pretty golden to me). From the moment we sat down, I knew we were in for a treat. I mean, let’s look at the cast: Brenda Wehle, Boyd Gaines, Bobby Steggert and Miss Kate Burton. That’s enough. Then you have a lovely A.R. Gurney play about Kit Cornell on a John Arnone set with costumes by Ann Hould-Ward and wigs by Paul Huntley. Well; I knew this may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I also knew that it CERTAINLY was going to be mine and Pat’s.
I had heard about the reviews. I didn’t read them because, usually, I disagree with the writers of reviews; usually, I prefer to make my own decisions about whether or not I like a play. If I like it (or love it), I blog about it. If I do not like it, I generally tend not to blog about it. Why do I want to spend my valuable time writing negative things about something that isn’t worthy of my time and attention? Besides, there is always going to be someone who does like what I do not; why upset them with my opinions? I reserve that act (almost solely) for criticizing the judges on So You Think You Can Dance. So, bottom line: did not read reviews. I simply waited for my night to see one of my favourite actresses play one of America’s favourite actresses (we are told). The thing is, I understand why people may not have liked The Grand Manner; and I can tell you why, too. That’s right. I have the answers.
I blame Angels in America.
If you think I didn’t enjoy the Kushner epic, you are mistaken. There will be a blog about my experience at the Walter Kerr watching Angels In America with Mr Kushner standing beside me. No. The reason I say that I blame Angels in America is because it changed theater forever. Before that play, there were dramatic works that moved people. Audiences would go to the theater and sit in their chairs and watch a comedy or a drama; they would get involved with the stories, the lives of Willy Loman, Maggie the Cat, Mary Tyrone, Thomas Moore… and when it was over they would say ‘oh isn’t that nice’ and go home. In the sixties and seventies we had Neil Simon making us laugh while the dramatic plays became more socio political, more bent on giving us a message. Up the Down Staircase, Steambath, The Boys in the Band, Wings, were all making statements for the audiences, whether they cared to acknowledge the statements or not. In these days of theatrical growth, when writers were wanting to take more risks and write, frankly, about topics that, before, may have caused worry about making audiences uncomfortable we had the likes of Equus, The Elephant Man, The Shadow Box… plays that were sending audiences home to think. This trend, this ambition, has never stopped. Writers create comedies, dramas, melodramas, musicals – whatever they write, some authors sit down to create a diversion, to tell a story, some sit down to change your life. What changes each individual’s life is up to the individual.
Not with Angels in America. Once that great poet named Kushner introduced audiences to theater than is apocalyptic in the way it changes an individual’s points of view and thought processes…well, that’s all audiences wanted. It’s like the chandelier, the helicopter and the staircase with musicals. Once audiences saw how grand a trip to the musical theater could be, they no longer seemed interested in four people on stools singing Maltby and Shire. Theater has become so expensive that audiences only feel that their investment is worth it if they feel devastated by the two hours in the seats; whether it be emotional devastation or visual.
A.R. Gurney does not devastate.
A.R. Gurney belongs to a group of playwrights who tell stories, who create dialogue that we who talk wish we had thought of while in conversation at a party last Saturday night, who write sentences so poetic that, as you are hearing them, you have to focus on not repeating them inside your head, lest you miss the next line. Now.. I don’t want to speak absolutely because I must admit I have not read all of Mr. Gurney’s plays. I wouldn’t want to insult by intimating that his plays are benign because, for example, I find Sweet Sue to be incredibly complex and thought provoking; and while, on the surface, the play Sylvia may seem like a confection, it is really incredibly profound and terribly, terribly clever. I only wish to say that Mr Gurney writes smart, witty plays that touch the heart and inspire the mind, quietly, without the fanfare of the plays sought out by audiences who need their lives changed. Frankly, I have felt my life changed by Mr Gurney’s work. His words and ideas have, often, made me smile when I didn’t want to, made my heart happier when I was sure it wouldn’t be, again. Even last night, after years of training myself to feel less, to show fewer emotions, to squash the optimism that I find so dangerous in my life, I could not help but to throw back my head and issue forth belly laughs and sighs.
A.R. Gurney will do just fine.
I had more than A.R. Gurney last night.
It should, after my recent story about Hedda Gabler, be clear that I am devoted to the great American actress Kate Burton. I have been sickened by the times I have not been able to afford a ticket to a Kate Burton play; but the fact that I got to see this one will feed my artistic soul for years to come. She is luminous (funny, because that is a word used to describe Kit Cornell in the play last night – and it is the word I choose for Kate today) in the part; believable, enjoyable, full of pathos and humour. Kate is like sunlight coming in the living room window; it doesn’t require attention or fanfare to fill the room – it just fills the room, making it brighter. I wanted, desperately, to wait backstage afterward to hug her; but I was afraid she would not remember me, after a ten minute photo shoot fifteen years ago, and that would have been embarrassing in front of Pat and Hunter, and saddening for me. It was best to leave the theater with a smile on my face. I may write her a fan letter, though. After all – that’s what I am: a fan.
Working alongside Kate are these three BEAUTIFUL actors named Brenda Wehle, Boyd Gaines and Bobby Steggert. Not being a reviewer, there is little to no point in my writing about how wonderful they all are. Though Miss Wehle has been preserved on film, most of her work has been on stage and the theater goers who have seen her will know what I am talking about when I say I will remember the name and seek it out in cast announcements, not wishing to miss her work again. Mr Gaines has earned a much deserved reputation (backed up by four Tony awards) for being one of this community’s, one of this country’s, best actors. Like Kate Burton, we flock to his shows whenever finances make it possible. In all these years, I think we have missed Boyd Gaines on the Broadway stage twice.
Then there is Bobby Steggert, playing A.R. Gurney’s alter ego in this fantasy play about an event that sort of happened and sort of happened in his mind. I missed Mr Steggert in Yank (but I hear it is coming to Broadway) but I did see his TREMENDOUS performance in Ragtime (won’t ever forget it) and after that and this lovely night of watching him simply BE, I won’t miss him onstage again. Yeah. He simply walked on the stage and WAS. He existed in every moment. He is that rare thing: magical.
Maybe those critics need to get laid more often; maybe it would make them more amiable in their theater seats and behind their computer monitors. Or, to quote A.R. Gurney and The Grand Manner’s version of Guthrie McClintic, those critics should “get fucked in the ear”.
I, for one, clearly do not.