Mrs. Mannerly -- The Etiquette Expert with a Secret
Mrs. Mannerly, the two person comedy that opens the 2013-14 season at TheaterWorks in Hartford, is one of those plays that can drive a critic bonkers. It is a pleasant evening in the theater with a number of laughs and some fine acting. Yet it leaves the audience feeling manipulated.
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has apparently used personal experience in crafting this comedy about a 10-year-old boy who is sent to the local manners expert, known to all as Mrs. Mannerly. It is 1967 and obviously the trend away from formal etiquette is in full swing, as the size of her class has diminished.
Jeffrey is determined to score 100 on the final exam -- a performance and tea at the local DAR that also includes dancing AND a quiz.
He learns that Mrs. Mannerly had been an actress before returning home and that something happened in Chicago; she was in the cast of a play there but not when it went on to Wisconsin. She also seems easily flustered by mentions of Chicago. So, Jeffrey sets out to learn more about her, hoping to use the information to his advantage to get the coveted 100.
Ray McAnally plays not only Jeffrey but the other members of the class -- often with a simple hand gesture, head turn or slight change in voice. He is very good at quickly sketching the characters: the boy who wants to get praise, the girl who is totally bored, and the others.
McAnally is not a small man and the sight of him in short pants adds to the humor. Dale Hodges plays the aging Mrs. Mannerly who seems not so much mysterious as a woman trying to maintain appearances of a lifestyle that is fading not just in society but for her personally. Hodges captures her slightly "down at the heels" attitude and feel. You know she realizes her days are numbered.
So what's my beef with the play? Not any one large thing, but numerous small things that the author did which afterwards makes you realize how implausible it all is. The short pants for one thing; no ten-year-old boy in 1967 wore short pants and a jacket. The age of the class: given some of the innuendo, I would have guessed the students were early teens, not barely preteens. The mystery: the whole play builds to this revelation about Mrs. Mannerly, but it never comes. I won't tell you what happens to the mysterious envelope which contains vital inforamtion.
Yet, this is still an enjoyable evening in the theater, though I would definitely rate it as "parental guidance" needed. Some of the language is not child-friendly.
You will have laughs, realize that now etiquette classes are becoming popular again not just for children but young professionals as well, and enjoy yourself. It's just afterwards that you will see the holes in the entire thing.
Mrs. Mannerly is at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford, through Nov. 17. For tickets and information call 860-527-7838 or online at theaterworkshartford.org.
This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers October 30, 2013 and online at Zip06.com.