By HOLLY BERETTO
Combining the parlor manners of a Jane Austin novel with the whiplash wit of Noel Coward, Jeffrey Hatcher’s Mrs. Mannerly is the story of a manners and etiquette class in 1967 Steubenville, Ohio. It is by turns raucous, bittersweet and an utterly real coming-of-age tale.
In a time when people routinely show their age by asking where manners have gone, Mrs. Mannerly might be something of a throwback to a nostalgic time that never was, but it’s still a refreshing comedy that turns a keen eye on human behavior. The play tells the story of Mrs. Mannerly, who’s set up shop teaching the well-heeled and well-heeled wannabes for the past 36 years. Into her room at the local YMCA, she covers the windows with beautiful landscapes and the basketball floor with a rug. Hers is a world where all things can be cured if we only place the shrimp fork in the correct spot in the place setting.
Enter into this Jeffrey, Hatcher’s fictionalized version of his young self (who really did take an etiquette class growing up in Steubenville). He admits he’s not much good at the things boys in the 1960s are supposed to be good at: sports, girls, getting into trouble. But he looks at his manners class as a place where he can excel, and he’s determined to be the first of Mrs. Mannerly’s students to score a perfect 100 on the final manners exam, held at an annual dinner for the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Along the way in this likeable romp, Jeffrey learns manners and Mrs. Mannerly grows away from her stern spinster stereotype. James Black has a ball playing Jeffrey and the other four students in Mrs. Mannerly’s class, veering from character to character with hand gestures and voice changes. He steps from in the center of the action to narrating it without ever missing a beat and is a sheer joy to watch.
Josie de Guzman plays Mrs. Mannerly with buttoned-up bravado, her elegance and poise a careful veneer for a woman with some kind of past. If she sometimes strays into caricature of a certain kind of mannered woman, it’s equally likely that Mrs. Mannerly is exactly that kind of character. The production is directed with great precision and timing by John Rando, who also directed the Alley’s much-enjoyed The Man Who Came to Dinner last season.
If manners are more about making another person feel comfortable than they are about the precise use of the phrase “Good day,” be sure you RSVP for this one – it’s a standout in one of the Alley’s best seasons yet.
Photos by Jann Whaley: (above) James Black, (below) Josie de Guzman in the Alley’s Mrs. Mannerly.