HARTFORD — Having seen about a quarter of his total output of more than two dozen stage works, I’ve never met a Jeffrey Hatcher play I didn’t like. Within the broad range of his handiwork — from the 17th Century vision of the theater in Compleat Female Stage Beauty, to the clever shaggy dog story Murderers, and from the intersection of art and war in A Picasso, to the eerie adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw — Hatcher consistently demonstrates a mixture of dramatic skill with a sense of empathy with his characters, so that you care about them, perhaps more than you expected to.
Happily this holds true for Mrs Mannerly, currently on stage at TheaterWorks Hartford. Billed as “an uproarious comedy,” this autobiographical portrait of 10-year-old Jeffrey’s eight week stint in an etiquette class while growing up in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1967, is certainly highly entertaining, but it also has an underlying message that bears attention today.
It’s a meaty role for adult actor Raymond McNally, who alternates alternate between the adult Hatcher reflecting back on his childhood, and the unfortunately bespectacled young “Master Jeffrey,” as well as playing all the other kids in the class (plus a gangster’s teenaged daughter, drafted to help the hero practice for the final exam). He carries it all off delightfully. His rendition of doing the cha cha with the sultry and seductive young lady is a total hoot.
McNally is well matched by Dale Hodges as the elderly teacher, who has been running these classes for the sons and daughters of the aspiring would-be gentry of Steubenville for over 30 years. Made up as an imperturbable Nancy Reagan look-alike in her red Chanel suit and well coiffed hair, Mrs Mannerly drills her young charges in the niceties of table setting, the proper rules of conversation, and the importance of posture, as she prepares them for their final examination — a notoriously difficult appearance before the Steubenville chapter of the DAR, where they are graded on a variety of trials including dancing, oral recitation, tea party service, and 25 questions randomly drawn from a hat.
In 36 years, she reminds them, no child has ever achieved a perfect score on this exam, thereby giving young Jeffrey his goal. A smart, chubby, totally unathletic child who would much rather stay home watching television than do anything out of doors, Master Jeffrey wants to be the first person ever to score 100 on the exam. He plans to achieve this by discovering the dark secret of Mrs Mannerly’s past, knowledge he hopes will give him the necessary edge.
But things are not quite what one might imagine. As the other children — each one goofy in his or her own way — gradually quit the class, eventually leaving Jeffrey alone with his antagonist, she emerges as a fully rounded person, with genuine lessons to teach him, and he in turn begins to find in himself the stirrings of insight that will eventually turn him into a mature and responsible man.
“It’s all right to be a fake,” Mrs Mannerly advises Jeffrey as he plies her with scotch bought with the $20 his grandfather gave him as a bribe to ride his bike just once, “so long as you’re not a phony!”
This seeming conundrum is the essence of the play. A person who is a fake may pretend to be of a higher social class by adapting an accent and curling a little finger, practicing all the right gestures, but a phony uses his or her position to exploit others. The latter, Jeffrey learns, is never appropriate.
As Hatcher himself explains in the program notes, “etiquette is a collection of rules developed for the various social interactions and events we pass through. Manners are how we behave to one another.” It isn’t all that important to know which fork to use, but it does matter that we learn to treat all people with kindness and respect.
Many people today lament the lack of civility in our public discourse. Perhaps our representatives in Washington could benefit from a class like the one Jeffrey took.
The show is filled with raunchy humor, language and sight gags (apparently a person sitting behind us was grossed out by it), but more than that it is infused with Hatcher’s innate kindness and empathy, which he attributes to the real Mrs Mannerly of his childhood, upon whom this play is based.
By all means, go see it if you can!
(Performances continue until November 17, with curtain Tuesday through Saturday evenings, and matinees on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Tickets are $50 general admission, $65 for Center Reserved seats, $35 for seniors on Saturday afternoons, and $15 for student rush seats. A free student matinee will be offered on Saturday, November 2.
Mrs Mannerly has a running time of 90 minutes, with no intermission. It is appropriate for ages 14 and up.
Call 860-527-7838 or visit TheaterWorksHartford.org for additional information or reservations.)