When I spoke to Mark Lamos, the director of The Grand Manner, he was still catching his breath from the opening of the beloved musical She Loves Me at the Westport Country Playhouse, where he is artistic director. Mentally, however, he was already deeply immersed in the world of Katharine Cornell, the mid-century American actress whose 1948 meeting with a character based on playwright A. R. Gurney, Jr. forms the heart of The Grand Manner.
"I actually knew a bit about Cornell and her husband, Guthrie McClintic, before I took on this project," Lamos said. "I think I read the Tad Mosel biography of her years ago, and have been re-reading it recently." Lamos, who was born in Illinois and attended Northwestern, added that he probably came across Cornell's name in high school. "I had terrific drama coaches then, and was interested in theater history from a young age."
Does Lamos think that Cornell, who was known for playing Shaw and Shakespeare, embodied a "grand manner" of acting? He replied: "I understand why Pete" - the name Gurney is known by - "used that for the title. But I think Mosel hit it on the head when he writes that Cornell's isn't so much a grand manner as a romantic way of making theater. It seems as if she was far from being a grande dame. She was quite a subtle actress who was perhaps overly aware of her limitations as a performer. As she grew into her maturity, she began to realize that the parts she was best suited for were not the ones she fell in love with."
This disparity reminded me of certain opera singers. Lamos, who has directed many opera productions over the years, agreed. "Cornell was a little like someone born with a soprano voice but who has the soul of a mezzo. Or vice versa."
In addition to staging opera and dozens of plays during his years as artistic director of Hartford Stage, Lamos has also directed Gurney's work before, including a production of Big Bill at LCT in 2004. How would he characterize the playwright's work? "His plays are deceptively challenging," he replied. "His later plays usually involve only 3 or 4 characters. Keeping the ball in the air between these characters requires a lot of care."
Lamos went on: "You can't take anything in a Gurney play for granted. There is a great deal of detail in them that needs to get fleshed out in rehearsal. Underneath the surface there is often a lot of pain and failure that is not necessarily apparent at first glance."
Before concluding my conversation with Lamos, I asked him about Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the play that Cornell is performing during the time frame of The Grand Manner.
"That's one of my favorite plays on earth," he commented. "I directed Antonyat Hartford Stage, and again more recently. The play contains some of the most astonishing writing in the English language. It becomes riveting for an audience primarily when the main characters are dying in the last 40 minutes." He added: "The play is a grand experiment."
A grand experiment in the grand manner? "It depends who's starring," Lamos replies, slyly.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.