Merrimack Delivers Laughs With Clever ‘Mrs. Mannerly’ (4 Stars)
“Mrs. Mannerly” Written by Jeffrey Hatcher; Directed by Mark Shanahan; Presented by The Merrimack Repertory Theatre at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell. Performances through Nov. 17th
Mrs. Mannerly, a two person play that recounts a memorable experience in the life of the author, is a story of manners, loyalty and a clash of cultures in the not too distant past. The setting is Steubenville, Ohio, 1967, and to give the audience a sense of the times, nostalgic audio clips from the world of music, politics and entertainment are played before the show opens.
When I first realized the entire play would be performed by only two actors, I thought “this could be slow and painful”. But Matthew Schneck instantly and ably becomes so many other characters during the show, that you easily forget you are watching just two performers. Some of the funnier moments come with his age and gender-crossing transformations, as he plays at least six other characters – all children who have either been students of the title character in the past or present day classmates.
He manages to capture the quirks and tics of children we recognize and have shared a classroom with growing up. He is indeed a treat and carries much of the play forward hilariously. Jan Neuberger so perfectly embodies the role of Mrs. Mannerly in every way that she commands your attention throughout. Haughty yet honest, she never makes you dislike her even while she refuses to break from her iron countenance of the purveyor of all that is proper. She is also free of the normal prejudices of the times. She is accepting of all – as long as they have good manners.
Jeffrey is a 10 year old boy who, after a bizarre incident at church, is
sent to the local YMCA every Wednesday for eight weeks to attend an
etiquette class with the stern – and somewhat frightening – Helen
Anderson Kirk – Mrs. Mannerly, a staple of Steubenville for the past 30+
years. Jeffrey is not good at sports and this weighs on his family, if
not on him. But he does have the desire to be the best at something.
while initially considering the class a punishment, Jeffrey decides to
make the best of it and embraces the challenge of the class and its
infamously difficult FINAL EXAM. Nobody in the history of Steubenville,
Ohio has ever scored 100 points on the test. The class has been held in
Steubenville for so long that almost everyone in town is aware of it and
to be the first to pass with a perfect score would cement Jeffrey’s
fame as the best at something. Even if it is just a manners class.
the play unfolds, one by one the other children in Jeffrey’s class drop
out, each for different reasons, until only Jeffrey is left. But that
just makes him more determined than ever to pass the test (and to also
solve a mystery that shrouds his teacher).
In one scene, Jeffrey
tests his teacher’s character by asking if asks is it ever all right to
lie. Of course, Mrs. Mannerly’s knee jerk reply is “never”. But after
more grilling from Jeffrey, she adjusts her answer, citing examples of
where telling a white lie about someone’s cooking or choice of clothing
would be preferable to the hurt feelings and rudeness that might
The sets are minimalist but effective, with the majority of the story unfolding in the rumpus room of the local YMCA. The one exception is a scene at the local watering hole where Ms. Neurberger finally gets to break from her Mrs. Mannerly facade and does a hilarious bit with Jeffrey involving nine shots of Johnny Walker. Again the actress nails the part beautifully and gets perhaps the biggest laughs of the show. The dialogue throughout is sharp, witty and rapid-fire, and while the jokes come fast and furious, the real meat of the story is watching the characters facades strip away as each reveals the true nature of the other.
In the end, the fate of Mrs. Mannerly seems inevitable as the old gives way to the new and the upstart culture of the 60’s pushes the perceived ‘need’ for manners class aside. But the timeless lesson from Mrs. Mannerly remains: It’s OK to be fake but not phony. Learning manners will help us all fit in, but it’s never acceptable to try to be someone you’re not.
And a little mystery is a good thing.
While the show will surely appeal to all generations of adults, the author was born in 1957, so there are loads of historical references for the 50-60 year old crowd, including the D.A.R., TV’s Batman and Robin, F-Troop (described by Jeffrey as “McHale’s Navy with Indians”), Wild Wild West, J. Edgar Hoover, LBJ and Vietnam to name just a few. There is also much sexual innuendo and colorful dialouge, so be aware that this is a PG language rated show. For more info, go to http://www.mrt.org/MrsMannerly.html