Critic's PickI admit it: going in, I expected Ensemble Theatre Company’s current production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Mrs. Mannerly to be about silverware — or worse. The production boasts an excellent line-up with veteran Cincinnati performer Dale Hodges in the lead and the Cincinnati Playhouse in Park former artistic director Ed Stern directing. Still, I had my doubts. How funny could a play about etiquette really be? As a high school student, I myself participated in Cotillion. I learned the proper method for buttering bread and a few dance steps that I never, ever use. None of my own manners education was funny in the least.
Silverware — and napkin folding and fox trotting and thank-you-card writing — are major topics of conversations in Jeffrey Hatcher’s semi-autobiographical Mrs. Mannerly, but the play is never dull or dry. Rather, both the script and production are surprisingly warm, downright smart and very, very funny. Who knew place settings could be so entertaining?
It is the mid-1960s in Steubenville, Ohio, and 9-year-old Jeffrey, played by Raymond McNally, is sent to manners class. Jeffrey appears perfectly well-mannered and precocious and part of the play’s fun is getting to the bottom of Jeffrey’s story: Why is such a manageable boy taking a manners class? Throughout the play, manners guru Emily Post is cited, read and revered by both Mrs. Mannerly and her young pupil.
Jeffrey speedreads a jaw-dropping five volumes of Post before taking his manners final in front of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Mrs. Mannerly holds Post up at the ideal in the realm of manners. Grown up Jeffrey, who narrates the play, tells us that other people have nightmares about failing tests or forgetting their lines, Jeffrey still dreams of his manners lessons and his formidable instructor, Mrs. Mannerly, played by Hodges. Little Jeffrey wants to be the most well-mannered boy in Steubenville history. Additionally, he wants Mrs. Mannerly to own up about her former, glamorous life in the big city of Chicago. The pair form an unusual alliance. Jeffrey is deeply grateful to her for getting him out of little league. Mrs. Mannerly is relieved to be employed.
The play introduces us to several characters including Jeffrey’s family, classmates and neighbors, all of which are played by McNally using minimal costume adjustments and spot-on physicalization. New to ETC, McNally gives a wonderful performance as Jeffrey — and everyone else. One of the zanier moments in the play is an adolescently awkward kissing sequence executed with just two pairs of glasses and McNally playing both kisser and kissee. McNally possesses an altogether delightful, albeit uncanny ability, to channel an entire range of pre-teen postures and speech patterns, everything from resolutely apathetic to hair-trigger hyper. I think there must be a very short list of Steubenville residents that McNally hasn’t played.
As usual, it is a pleasure to watch Dale Hodges. Her voice and lovely British lilt are especially well-suited to the character. Mrs. Mannerly’s past is mysterious, even alluring, in a way that might make many straight-laced, etiquette geeks wilt. Hodges manages both aspects of the character with skill. She is spot on as the teacher with textbook social skills, perfectly done hair and one million rules up her sleeve. And she possesses the acting chops to allude to the character’s complexity without giving too much of her mystery away. Hodges is tremendously funny, utilizing both pitch and timing to land the comedic moments.
Ed Stern’s direction lays nicely on this charming play. The set is vaguely real, but fluid and magical — like Jeffrey’s memories of his teacher. Visually, the production is simple, throwing focus to the actors. There’s nothing fancy or unnecessary in the set, staging, or movement. Anything extra would clutter the comedy and distract the audience from the play’s touching centerpiece: the relationship between Mrs. Mannerly and Jeffrey.
Mrs. Mannerly is a perfect night out at the theatre – so long as you’re on your best behavior. The actors engage the audience, easily bringing the house into the world of the play and the lives of these rich characters. I went in nervous I’d be reliving my own dismal manners experience. But if you go, expect to laugh a lot, learn a thing or two, and leave charmed and thoroughly entertained.
MRS. MANNERLY, presented by Ensemble Theatre, continues through Oct. 28.