07/10/2010 02:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stage Door: The Grand Manner, A Winter's Tale

Legends need good press and visibility.

Katherine Cornell, known as the greatest American stage actress of the 20th century, is little remembered today. Yet she reigned for decades, heralded for her powerful performances and glamorous personae. Her greatest triumphs made stars of the actresses who repeated the roles for Hollywood. But Cornell adamantly refused all screen offers; she was a creature of the theater, ensuring that too few would remember her glories.

The Grand Manner, at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse, is A.R. Gurney's valentine to his boyhood star and snapshot of a culture in transition.

The play opens in the green room, back stage at Broadway's Antony and Cleopatra. Young Pete (Bobby Steggert) is a stand-in for the adolescent Gurney, who briefly met his idol in 1948. Pete has journeyed from his New England boarding school to meet Cornell, only to catch her at a difficult moment. Yes, she's gracious, but worries her star may be fading. Her real fear: her manner may be too grand for a post-war world of Marlon Brando and television.

Regaled as the First Lady of the Theater, Cornell played by her own rules: beautiful, dedicated and savvy -- she was also a producer who ran her own production company alongside husband Guthrie McClintic (Boyd Gaines). They had a lavender marriage, though adored each other. Cornell is devoted to Gertrude (Brenda Wehle), her manager and lover; Guthrie's affectations are histrionic, but his loyalty unwavering. Both are well-cast.

That such sexual freedoms are openly discussed before Pete seems unlikely; then again, the theater, they remind him, doesn't play by conventional rules. In the end, The Grand Manner, Gurney's swan song to the theater, is occasionally charming and touching, but tepid.

Burton, who was wonderful a few seasons ago in The Constant Wife, doesn't quite capture Cornell's allure, though Steggert seems born to play Pete. A second disappointment is Mark Lamos' direction. The John Arnone sets and Ann Hould-Ward costumes work, but too often, audiences are starring at someone's back. What's missing, strangely enough, is what Cornell was famous for: drama.

There's plenty of drama, jealousy and rage in A Winter's Tale, performed at the Delacorte, part of the Public's Shakespeare in the Park, which alternates in repertory with The Merchant of Venice. Consumed by a raging jealousy (played more like anger by Ruben Santiago-Hudson), King Leontes of Sicilia threatens to lay kill his own family -- his wife Hermione (Linda Emond) and his newborn daughter, who he believes, in his paranoid state, was fathered by his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Jesse L. Martin).

Sixteen years later, after all have fled to safety, the next generation takes center stage. Florizel (Francois Battiste), the son of Polixenes, and the found daughter of Leontes (Heather Lind), fall in love and return to the royal court, where all is reconciled and forgiven. There are fine performances here, especially from Emond and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Paulina).

Long considered one of the Bard's "problem plays," the piece is a study of two halves, the first giving the cast every opportunity to rage at the heavens, the second for a parade of comedic performers to pull each other's pants off. Even the most talented of actors and directors has a hard time reconciling the two.

A spare Turkish-themed set, complete with a backdrop of rainfall and an occasionally dazzling glow of yellow and orange lights, gives the performers ample room to perform. At times, they seem to roam too freely; the spotlight occasionally lags a half step behind. This was remedied in the second, comedic half, where a series of trap doors and animatronic sheep ensure that paths are followed with caution.

Live music effectively accompanies the play. The orchestra is a respectful accent to the action. This is a tough play to stage, and Michael Grief's direction of A Winter's Tale offers enough technical imagination to sustain our attention, but little textual creativity to rank it as particularly memorable. By comparison, Edward Hall's earlier production of A Winter's Tale at BAM offered a more vigorous and complex psychological interpretation, in which royal fever and silly romps get their due.