Minding Manners

Dale Hodges plays the title role in the Jeffrey Hatcher play, "Mrs. Mannerly" at Hartford's TheaterWorks (Ryan Kurtz, TheaterWorks / October 11, 2013)

Ah, if only Mrs. Mannerly were around today — and stationed at every theater lobby in America.

She would not tolerate a cell phone going off, or texting or talking, or a myriad of other audience sins that have the potential of ruining a night in the theater for others.

You see, Mrs.Mannerly is an etiquette expert and the titular character in Jeffrey Hatcher's play that is now in previews at Hartford's TheaterWorks. (The show opens Oct. 18 and runs through Nov. 17.)

The play was inspired by Hatcher's instructor at a good behaviorial class in the '60s in Steubenville, Ohio, and how this caring woman shaped his life, teaching him the rules of the social road — as well how to take a few off ramps.

Though her purview was overall social behavior, what would Mrs.M. think of theater audiences today and their increasingly ill-bred actions.

"She would be appalled," says Hatcher, "especially the use of cell-phones, crinkly candy wrappers and the use of food and drink in theaters."

Sometimes those audience gaffes are finger-licking appalling.

Ed Stern, who directs the Hartford production (he staged the play in Cincinnati, too) remembers one memorable Broadway experience.

"Sitting next to me was a gentleman who not-so-quietly was removing a box from a plastic bag. An unmistakable aroma wafted across the space. He was opening a boxed dinner from Kentucky Fried Chicken. The whole dinner: The chicken. The mashed potatoes. The biscuit. And a large drink. He sat there eating oblivious of the people around him. I can't say I could pay attention to the show anymore. I just wanted a bite of that chicken."

Sometimes you just have to laugh. Or sigh.

"I wish people would treat the theater as an event that deserves respect," says Dale Hodges, who plays Mrs. Mannerly at TheaterWorks (she also played the role in Cincinnati). "So much work has been put into these productions. If you don't want to focus on it, stay at home. If you're not someone who enjoys doing that perhaps this is not the art form for you."

If you think the actors on stage don't notice you talking, texting or sleeping, you're wrong. And you should hear what they're saying about you back stage. And sometimes on.

Raymond McAnally who is also in "Mrs. Mannerly" in Hartford and Cincinnati, says he's broken "the fourth wall" and spoken back to audience members when it got to be too much.

"If it's a comedy you're in, you can turn a negative into a treat, making it part of the show. But most of the time you just have to suffer."

The outrageous acts are typically done not out of malice but ignorance. Young people who are use to getting entertainment on film, TV or on the concert stage, are especially oblivious to rules — or schedules.

Stern remembers the time when Madonna was starring in David Mamet's play, "Speed the Plow" on Broadway when a group of high schoolers from Long island arrived late to the show. "Learning that the play was almost over, they said, "No problem. We'll just wait for the next performance."

Joe Manganiellio, who stars in HBO's popular "True Blood," stopped the Yale Repertory Theatre production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" to admonish fans of the TV series when they started taking pictures when he took off his shirt and exposed his sculpted torso. He also took to Twitter for a few more exasperated tweets before he came up with another strategy with this tweet: "I'm happy to take pics outside after the show and @yalerep posted some fantastic shots of the play that they took. Please be respectful."

But sometimes the theaters themselves are enablers. In being more customer-friendly, drinks and sometimes snacks are increasingly allowed into the theater. "It's something we struggle with all the time," says Rob Ruggiero, producing artistic director of TheaterWorks. "We do have to educate without harming their freedom of experience."

So short of giving tasers to ushers, here's a Mrs. Manners-style educational guide that might limit the drama to what's happening on stage.

The Rules