By FRANK RIZZO, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
October 22, 2013
The show: "Mrs. Mannerly" at TheaterWorks in Hartford.
What makes it special?: Return of one of the theater's favorite playwrights, Jeffrey Hatcher ("Murderers," "Tuesdays with Morrie," "Three Viewings")
First impressions: I'll try to say this in the politest way possible. The show with the very appealing premise —- call it "Wednesdays with Manners" —- is generally amusing and entertaining but its social satire veers into the ridiculous with bizarre plot strands and an uneven, uncomfortable, and sometimes even crude tone. The show's two actors get their share of laughs but the unfocused script has them jumping through hoops. Tsk tsk.
What's it about?: Character of adult writer Jeffrey Hatcher (Raymond McAnally) looks back as his weekly sessions as a 10-year-old boy in 1967 with his etiquette teacher who has taught manners in Steubenville, Ohio for decades. But the times they are a-changing as both precocious student and prim and proper teacher try to find their place in the world.
Sounds promising: It is and the beginning of the work is totally engaging. But then it gets unruly.
Such as?: McAnally is required to play the other four young students in the class who drop out one-by-one as young Jeffrey seeks to be the first person in Mrs. Manners class to achieve a perfect score on the big oral test at semester's end. Then it gets even more wonky.
How so?: A former prize student returns to the class to give Jeffrey a few lessons of her own —- and there the play jumps the shark, not only in narrative but in tone. You also question the standards of the teacher, especially later when she lets the 10-year-old treat her to nine shots of Johnny Walker Reds.
There's some cheap laughs but you're not sure what the playwright is trying to get at.
And it's not only the character of Mrs. Manners who is a muddle. What to make of young Jeffrey? He appears to be this wunderkind of folding napkins and plate placement ("Live by the butter knife, die by the butter knife") but then he seeks out the details of Mrs. Mannerly's mysterious past. Their budding relationship turns sour but then there's a curtain-ender sweetening that's unearned.
Hatcher doesn't quite know what his play wants to be. Is it light hearted satire like a two-hander version "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee?" (Hatcher's potty-mouth kids seem more 2013 than 1967.) Or is it a more damning snapshot of when America lost its poise? (Vietnam is casually mentioned but the "question-authority" era isn't particularly evoked, though there are lots of pop culture references.) Is it a story of two outsiders who navigate inside and outside societal rules? This may be more like it but it's not clear.
Still, there are lots of amusing lines ("Manners don't kill people. People who use manners kill people") and the two actors are wonderfully cast and the staging by Ed Stern is fluid and lively.
In her Chanel-style suit, Dale Hodges looks picture perfect as the tough old bird who knows her days are numbered but is doing her best in keeping up appearances. She'd also hysterically game when the script has her dipping into Durang territory.
With his round owlish glasses and devil-who-swallowed-the-pixie demeanor (evoking '30s critic Alexander Wolcott, for those who remember), McAnally is also a hoot.
Who will like it?: Steubenvillians. Fans of Emily Post.
Who won't?: Those looking for more order, clarity and grace in their comedies of manners.
For the kids?: Not for 10-year-olds though teens may be entertained by the idea that rules are made to be broken.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Often amusing show but low marks for sloppiness and bad behavior.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: There's a swell exhibit in the theater's street-level gallery that engages an audience and sets the mood.
The basics: The show continues through Nov. 17 at the theater at 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $65. Student rush tickets are $15. Saturday matinee tickets are $35 for seniors. Information at 860-527-7838 and www.theaterworkshartford.org.
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