In the lobby before Friday’s opening of Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Mrs. Mannerly,” friends mentioned their need for a good laugh. Fiscal cliff fears? Work woes? Whatever. They got it from an hysterical treatment of an amusing script, courtesy of the polished forces at SCP. Treat yourself.
This 90-minute play fits into the genre of funny autobiographical pieces like Neil Simon’s Eugene trilogy and Garrison Keillor’s radio reminiscences: stories about childhood experiences artfully tweaked. Here Hatcher (Randy McConnaugh), from Steubenville, Ohio, “recalls” an episode from his 10th year in 1967.
An only child, he is sent by his parents to Mrs. Mannerly (Melissa M. Brown) to learn etiquette. Mrs. Mannerly is a local woman with a foggy past, as young Jeffrey discovers, and she has been doing the social graces gig for 36 years. The class consists of children trying to master forks, posture exercises, and dance steps, at the end of which training they are awarded grades based on a public performance in front of the DAR “biddies.”
WHERE: Schenectady Civic Players, 12 S. Church St.
WHEN: Through Dec. 9
HOW MUCH: $15
MORE INFO: 382-2081, or www.civicplayers.org
Mrs. Mannerly is a martinet, always ready to correct a child with a smart remark or an order to pony up a quarter for forgetting manners. The other four students in Jeffrey’s class fall by the wayside over time, so the DAR presentation involves Jeffrey alone, who is eager to score 100 on the final.
The strengths of this script are numerous. Hatcher successfully walks a fine line between narration and dramatization: Jeffrey addresses the audience from the vantage point of an adult, but participates in the scenes as a boy. Also, the relationship between the older woman and child is multi-faceted. At 10, kids are beginning to see beneath the surface and ask questions, so Jeffrey’s motives are tinged with self-interest and manipulation, making him a worthy adversary to the experienced Mrs. Mannerly, who lets down her guard a bit for this young man. The cat-and-mouse relationship culminates in a poignant scene in the bar over which Mrs. Mannerly lives, replete with Murphy bed and a hot plate.
Mark Stephens, making an auspicious SCP directing debut, is a funny guy (read his program note) who knows where the laughs are in this script and how to elicit them.
Both Brown and McConnaugh are at the top of their games. Dressed in red sweater, black sheath dress, and black pumps, she bestrides the stage commanding attention with expert diction, restrained gestures, black-eyed looks, and perfectly timed retorts. Brown makes you remember adults from your youth who both fascinated and alarmed you (in my case a geometry teacher). But Brown also finds this woman’s vulnerability with a relaxing of the shoulders or a slight look away.
McConnaugh joins the list of the area’s clown princes, like Kris Anderson, Aaron Holbritter, and Richard Michael Roe. Playing 11 characters, he does so with — I was about to say ease, but no: with craft. He just makes it look easy.
Dressed in short pants, suspenders, and knee-length socks (thanks, costumer Joe Fava), McConnaugh morphs seamlessly from girl to boy to girl and back again and engages the audience with a twinkle during the narration. The scene that convulsed me involved siren Patty Lopresta: a tour de force moment.
So, do you need a laugh? Now you know where to go.