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Diva devotion A.R. Gurney finds the voice of his youth in 'The Grand Manner,' a play honoring the legacy of Katharine Cornell

At the impressionable age of 18, the playwright A.R. Gurney took a trip from his boarding school in Concord, N.H., to the Martin Beck Theatre in New York City to catch a glimpse of the great stage actress Katharine Cornell.

Enraptured by Cornell's performance as the great Egyptian queen in the final scene of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," Gurney made his way backstage. For a few awestruck moments, the aspiring playwright stood in Cornell's presence, gathered up just enough courage to ask the actress for her autograph, and then, as Gurney put it, "slinked off into the night."

Gurney, now 79, spent the next 60 years thinking back on that meeting with his fellow Buffalonian, a kindred spirit whose upbringing and love for the theater so mirrored his own. To remedy his regret about the unrealized potential of their meeting, Gurney wrote "The Grand Manner," a play that fuses that brief encounter with his own reimagining of what might have occurred had things gone differently.

The play opened this weekend in a Lincoln Center Theatre production at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, 20 blocks away from the meeting that helped to launch Gurney's career as one of America's most popular and prolific playwrights. It stars Kate Burton (daughter of actor Richard Burton) as Cornell and Bobby Steggert as the young Gurney.

Gurney said in a phone conversation from New York City that, while he strove to honor Cornell's legacy in "The Grand Manner," he also was motivated to write the play out of a nostalgia for his boyhood -- and a desire to mine that fertile period of his life for dramatic material -- that has beset him as of late.

The show draws certain similarities between the playwright and the late actress, both of whom were raised by well-to-do families in Buffalo and began their great obsessions and love affairs with American theater in their hometown. Cornell was born in Berlin in 1893, moved to Buffalo as small child and died in 1974 at age 81.

"I didn't write it simply to honor her, though I hope I did. In some ways, I was writing about myself," Gurney said. "Toward the end of my career, I'm looking back on what I've done, wondering whether what I've done is going to last and whether or not it's any good. So some of the things that she's worried about in the play, I think that I worry about. So I impose myself on her a little bit."

"Grand Manner" director Mark Lamos, who also directed recent productions of Gurney's Buffalo-focused plays "Buffalo Gal" and "Indian Blood" in New York, said the similarities between Cornell and Gurney are clear in the show.

"Here was another girl from a genteel upbringing in that town when it was kind of at the peak of its power and fame, and she kind of went against all conventions and went on to become an actress," Lamos said. "And here he went against a lot of conventions in his family circles and went on to become a playwright."

> Faded legacy

For most American theatergoers, Cornell's legacy has faded to the extent that most no longer recognize her name. The reputation of a woman once widely considered "the first lady of the theater" has suffered from her singular devotion to an ephemeral medium whose greatest stars strut and fret their hours upon the stage, and then are heard no more.

Gurney tried in vain to think of a modern parallel that would help to give younger audiences an idea of Cornell's massive popular appeal in her day.

"She was certainly the Meryl Streep of her day, or more so. More so in some ways, because she never made a movie, didn't want to, didn't think she'd be any good at it. She did do a little TV toward the end of her life, but she made her name, her fortune and a great deal of money as a stage actress."

In a 1947 review of the Buffalo opening of the production of "Antony and Cleopatra" that Gurney would later see in New York City, critic Robert D. Gaskin wrote glowingly of Cornell's performance and of her devoted fans. Like many of the plays in which Cornell appeared, the show began its run in Buffalo's Erlanger Theatre, which once stood across from the Statler Hotel on Niagara Square.

"The Cornell production came impressively to life last night in the Erlanger Theatre and must be at first hand set down as one of the most distinguished Shakespearean productions of this generation. It appeared likely to give great satisfaction to the Cornell idolaters, many of whom doubtless will feel that as long as we must have Shakespeare, he should be done primarily by the great Katharine."

Gaskin went on to write that Cornell easily embodied Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra as woman so preternaturally gifted that "age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety."

For those dedicated few whose fascination with Cornell continues, those words still ring true.

One of those admirers is former Buffalonian Elizabeth Dribben, who is at work on a documentary about Cornell. Dribben, who now lives in New York City, joked that not having seen Cornell perform is "the pain of my existence." "The world of the theater benefited tremendously by someone like Miss Cornell," Dribben said.

> Buffalo gal

In Buffalo, where a theater on the campus of the University at Buffalo bears the name of the legendary actress, perhaps Cornell's most committed admirer is Anthony Chase, theater editor for Artvoice and an assistant dean at Buffalo State College. Chase's interest in Cornell began when he starred in a production of Kaufman and Hart's "The Man Who Came to Dinner," in which Cornell is referenced. After moving to Buffalo, Chase began to collect letters, photographs and autographs concerning Cornell, and has become something of an expert about her life and legacy.

In the course of his research, Chase said, he discovered that Cornell's marriage to producer and director Guthrie McClintic was acknowledged by her friends to be "a lavender arrangement" that allowed her the opportunity to be romantically intimate with her female friend and fellow actress Nancy Hamilton. He also noted that the widespread perception that Cornell refused to work in film and had no interest in doing so -- which factors heavily into "The Grand Manner" -- was something of a myth that the actress herself intentionally cultivated out of fear that she wasn't up to the challenge presented by the new medium.

Chase said that Buffalo played a major role in Cornell's development, noting that the city's theaters were a draw for Cornell when she was a child and that later, Cornell preferred to open her shows here before taking them on tours across the United States.

"Buffalo has always been a good place to go to the theater, from vaudeville through the great touring shows of the 20th century, and that she got from Buffalo, an obsession with live entertainment, with the theater," Chase said. "She, as a little girl, craved an opportunity to see Maude Adams as Peter Pan, and that harks back to a theater tradition of great stars touring in their great roles. She was to step into that tradition."

Gurney reflected on the opportunity the theater continues to provide him, not just to resurrect one of the greatest stars of the medium he loves, but to rewrite his own history. He thought back to that night in 1947, when, tongue-tied and shy, he couldn't think of a single intelligent thing to say to Cornell.

Sixty-three years later, he said, "I've been lucky enough to find a way to say it."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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