Audiences at TheaterWorks in downtown Hartford were on their best behavior the other evening as they wanted to be sure that the title character of Jeffrey Hatcher's "Mrs. Mannerly" would refrain from calling them on the carpet for talking during the performance or allowing their cell phones to go off. After all, in the person of the diminutive spark plug Dale Hodges, Hatcher's maven of etiquette, cuts quite an imposing and formidable figure.
Based on a real figure from Hatcher's own youth in Steubenville, "Mrs. Mannerly" feels more like an extended comedy sketch rather than a full-fledged play. It can be quite amusing in parts and genuinely laugh out loud funny in others as it tells the story of ten-year old Jeffrey's introduction to the world of poise, proper speaking and table setting under the tutelage of the Ohio city's renown doyenne of good taste and appropriate behavior. The play is structured as a flashback as the contemporary adult Jeffrey looks back on his younger self's experience in this rite-of-passage class that any number of Steubenville youth endured.
Much of the humor arises from the interplay between teacher and student, who is played by the same actor playing the grown-up Jeffrey. Hodges' Mrs. Mannerly is the epitome of genteel taste with a patrician voice and confident composure as she instills the fundamentals of elegant living and societal interactions into the heads of her five students, all of whom including the one girl are played by the amiable and remarkably flexible actor Raymond McAnally, who also plays both Jeffreys. The younger Jeffrey proves to be a most eager student, even as he works his subterfuge on his fellow students, who either ignore Mrs. Mannerly, resist her instruction or fawn all over her. Ultimately, Jeffrey becomes her only student, which does not necessarily provide him with the advantage he had initially desired.
Director Ed Stern originally mounted this production at the Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati with the same two actors and their familiarity and experience assures that the evening progresses smoothly and swiftly. Playwright Hatcher should be familiar to a number of TheaterWorks audience members as several of his works have been produced at the theater in the past, including "Tuesdays with Morrie," "Three Viewings," "Scotland Road," and the musical "Ella" which had its world premiere at TheaterWorks under the direction of Rob Ruggiero and which subsequently toured extensively around the country.
Although "Mrs. Mannerly" is a comedy, Hatcher does attempt to insert some depth into the production regarding young Jeffrey's actual motives for taking the class and raising some questions about some potentially torrid secrets somewhere in the title character's past. He also tries to supply some suspense by building up to a climactic scene set during Miss Mannerly's annual "final examination" presentation, held before an austere but aging audience of Steubenville's most select society matrons.
Just as Hodges' Mrs. Mannerly remains the exemplar of composure and quality, McAnally endows the students with just the right amount of quirks and sass. Just as he ably handles the transitions between the older and younger Jeffrey's, he can quickly flash between the various students with a slouch, a grunt or a preening smile. He is delightful throughout, especially later in the 75-minute intermissionless show when he portrays an alumnus of Miss Mannerly's program who is invited back to help young Jeffrey prepare for the dance section of final examination. She turns out to not be what one would expect from a distinguished graduate and accordingly McAnally has a good time getting into character.
Hatcher eventually provides a glimpse into Mrs. Mannerly's carefully hidden psyche which Hodges handles with a vulnerability as her character lets her guard down in an evening of what for Mrs. Mannerly would constitute abandon. That leads up to the climactic scene in which an altered etiquette book and a macguffin in the form of a sealed envelope contribute to an O. Henry like twist that summarizes the changes that have occurred within our two main characters.
The action occurs in front of a backdrop of an oversized colorful postcard depicting various locales in and around Steubenville as part of Brian C. Mehring's neatly compact set, which also contains some mobile furniture such as Mrs. Mannerly's desk, a cart or two and some chairs. Rebecca Senske's costumes nicely highlight Mrs. Mannerly's traditional and refined demeanor, while dressing McAnally in outfits that accommodate his sometime swift character changes, especially with the shorts that help capture the youth and bravado of the younger Jeffrey. John Lasiter's lighting design helps isolate characters as necessary while cleverly hiding specific movements that set up a joke.
While "Mrs. Mannerly" is not the type of profound play that will stick with you long after you've left the theater, it is nonetheless quite enjoyable and diverting the entire time that class is in session. Plus it may get you wondering whatever happened to common respect and decorum in today's world and if and how such values are communicated to each generation.
"Mrs. Mannerly" runs through November 17 at TheaterWorks at City Arts on Pearl, 233 Pearl Street in Hartford. For information and to purchase tickets, call the Box Office at 860.527.7838 or visit their website at www.theaterworkshartford.org. And when you attend your performance, plan on arriving a bit early in order to view the exhibition in the theater's gallery about the role and impact of etiquette in contemporary American social circles.
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