When during a pre-play phone call I told my mother the premise of "Mrs. Mannerly" -- it's a comedy about a kid in an etiquette class in the late '60s -- her immediate response was "Oh, funny!"
If her response, and the success of works from the likes of "My Fair Lady" to "Ms. Congeniality" are any indication, comedies about etiquette, when done well, are generally favorably received. "Mrs. Mannerly" seems to have sought to capitalize on this cultural predilection and, undoubtedly, the play makes many gestures towards tried-and-true tropes (a to-do made about setting cutlery, for example.)
Unfortunately, however, for much of the play, one is left feeling that too much is presumed; moments that might have been funny are not adequately delivered.
That isn't to say that "Mrs. Mannerly" was a terrible play, but it wasn't a great play either. It's difficult to identify just what, exactly, was unsuccessful about Friday night's opening performance. More frustrating for the purposes of a review, it's difficult to say whether the unevenness could be dismissed as opening-night jitters and botch-ups, or if this particular combination of script, director and actors was dead in the water. Players quite possibly had some potential in his or her own rite, but the overall execution of their combined efforts somehow didn't gel.
The play is based on writer Jeffrey Hatcher's recollection of attending etiquette classes with Helen Kirk, a staple in her small-town of Steubenville, Ohio and known as "Mrs. Mannerly" to its inhabitants. The time of the first session is October 1st, 1967; the location is the rented out rec room of the YMCA.
Hatcher, a very bright, polite and pudgy 10-year-old boy with little inclination or talent for things like Little League, has been sent to Mrs. Mannerly as punishment for an unholy outburst in church. Like his mother before him, he will have to pass Mrs. Mannerly's final exam during a debut before the town's Daughters of the American Revolution. No one has ever gotten a perfect score; Hatcher intends to change that.
As Hatcher sets about picking off the competition and reading his Emily Post (the guru of etiquette, of course), he stumbles across evidence of Mrs. Mannerly's mysterious past. Eventually, Hatcher's challenge to himself to be the first and only recipient of the perfect score comes into conflict with his investigative work.
The writing of the play itself actually had some really nice moments of witty, anecdotal repartee of the type one might find with David Sedaris. However, it was perhaps too heavy-handed. All characters other than Mrs. Mannerly and Hatcher were clumsily caricatured, nearly all gum-smacking, trash-talking South Philly or Brooklyn types. More problematic was the way the script and these caricatured characters were delivered.
"Mrs. Mannerly" is a two-actor show with scenes involving at least five or six characters. Richard Horvitz as Hatcher guides the audience through his story and acts out any other characters that come up.
Nan Tepper ably played Mrs. Mannerly, though there were a few too many slip-ups and stutters through what would have otherwise been sharp, funny lines. Her laid-back acting style, however, was very much at odds with Horvitz's over-the-top treatment of Hatcher and his even more-over-the-top treatment of the other characters.
Horvitz's exaggerated style mostly worked for Hatcher's character, but its broad application to a host of pantomimed characters was difficult to read, leaving one overheard audience member to wonder if they'd been trying to pinch pennies by not hiring more actors.
Overall, "Mrs. Mannerly" was imbalanced and, tonally, it seemed to confuse the audience. The mismatched acting styles combined with slip-ups made it difficult to identify many of Mrs. Mannerly's lines as funny; some of the dialogue was witty or clever, but no one in the audience laughed due to poor delivery.
There were certainly some redeeming moments, leaving me hopeful that the actors will hit their stride later on in the run, but the play as it was on opening night was unsatisfying.
"Mrs. Mannerly" runs through Dec. 15 at Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Dr. in Los Angeles. For info or tickets, call 310-364-0535 or visit www.theatre40.org.