‘The Grand Manner’ in Houston
by Donalevan Maines
“The most exciting loves are the loves that we don’t talk about,” actress Katherine Cornell tells a starstruck fan in A.R. Gurney’s The Grand Manner.
The fan is the playwright himself, looking back in a mix of memory and imagination, when he was a teen from Buffalo, New York, meeting Cornell, also from Buffalo, backstage at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York (it’s now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre).
Cornell, who shared the title “First Lady of the American Stage” with Helen Hayes, was starring in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Gurney spoke with her briefly, but re-imagines the meeting as a much longer experience that might have served as the catalyst for his life in the theater. The play also shares that Cornell was a lesbian who was legally wed to a gay man, her producer Guthrie McClintic.
“They had what was called a ‘lavender marriage,’” explains director Jim Tommaney, whose Edge Theatre is performing the play Dec. 2–11 at Midtown Art Center. That term often described a marriage of convenience between a gay man and his wife, or “beard” (think Liza Minnelli and her various husbands). In the case of the McClintics, he was a promiscuous gay rascal while Cornell’s longtime lady love was her assistant, Gertrude Macy.
“It’s a terrible thing to be trapped in the wrong role,” Cornell tells Pete, the character based on Gurney (and played by Alex Randall). The line might appear to describe an actor’s dilemma, but the older, wiser Gurney realizes that Cornell also meant the part she played offstage for the sake of the provincial public in 1948.
Tommaney is a longtime fan of the prolific playwright, whose work has often skewered upper-class WASPs in plays such as The Cocktail Hour, Sylvia, and The Dining Room. (Gurney also wrote the two-character play Love Letters.)
A few years ago, Tommaney enjoyed hearing Gurney speak at a university in Miami, where Tommaney produced gay plays for more than 15 years before relocating to Houston two years ago.
“I am so glad I moved here,” says Tommaney. “I love the theatrical community in Houston. They are very supportive of each other, and the quality work of the work is very good.”
Now in his 80s, Tommaney can boast that he saw Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in their last performance, and he can spin yarns about his friendship with the late Ethel Merman, including their backstage pass to see Lauren Bacall in one of her Tony Award-winning roles. He calls Cornell by her nickname “Kit” and refers to her husband as “Guth.”
“They had a townhouse in New York City on Beekman Place, a very fancy address, and shared the first two floors. Kit Cornell had the third floor to herself and Guth the fourth to himself,” explains Tommaney. “If only the walls could talk!”
He adds, “The play is a tribute to theater, and to Cornell, who was one of the greatest actors of the 20th century. And to her husband, who brought [George Bernard] Shaw and Shakespeare [plays] to America.”
Tommaney points out that Anthony Hunter is an important part of the production because as understudy to Alex Randall, who was starring in Kriegie Wartime Log at Spring Street Studios through Nov. 21, Hunter filled in for Randall at many rehearsals.
B.Renda Fager is the stage manager.
John Kaiser, who played The Devil in Edge Theatre’s Houston bow, Don Juan in Hell, is playing Guth. Mary Westbrook of Richmond, who recently played a psychiatrist in Night Watch at Cast Theater in Rosenberg, is cast as Gert, Cornell’s manager and love interest.
Tommaney has entrusted the role of the great Cornell to Bonnie Hewett of Spring. “Cornell was very glamorous and so is Bonnie Hewett,” he says.
She had better be. Cornell once advised her friend, modern-dance legend Martha Graham, “When you exit, take everything with you, even the grand piano if there is one on the stage.”
Edge Theatre presents A.R. Gurney’s 2010 off-Broadway play The Grand Manner at 8 p.m. Friday–Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sundays, Dec. 2–11, at Midtown Art Center, 3414 La Branch St. “We are keeping the prices modest at $20, seniors $15 and students $10,” says Tommaney. For further information, call 832-894-1843 or write to [email protected]
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.