The "comedy of manners" has been a staple of theatre since the days of Shakespeare. Its very description implies levity, indicating a play that might not be as deep as it is clever. Mrs. Mannerly, which opened Sunday at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, seems at its outset to be just that: A witty "comedy of manners" that's actually set in a manners class (taught by a woman named Mrs. Mannerly. Manners!). But as the play develops, it transforms into a touching account of nostalgia and mystery, as well as of a friendship between two mismatched, three-dimensional characters. And after all that, it still manages to be hilarious.
The storyteller of Mrs. Mannerly is the play's writer Jeffrey Hatcher, who appears both as the omniscient, fourth-wall-breaking narrator and as the precocious 10-year-old version of himself. Young Jeffrey, in the year 1967, enrolls in an infamous Steubenville manners class taught by an eloquent old woman Helen Anderson Kirk, a.k.a., Mrs. Mannerly. He's a strangely well-behaved kid, but he tells Mrs. Mannerly that he has "personal and private" reasons for joining her ranks. Older Jeffrey jumps in and out of the action (and sometimes, even rewinds it) to fill in characters' histories and comment on the proceedings.
Both iterations of the character are played by Matthew Schneck, who masterfully navigates not just between the stammering, awkward Young Jeffrey and the confident, detailed narrator but also between the rest of the characters in the class. He makes most of the 12 or so other characters he plays (like his cigar-chewing father or his butt-kissing classmate Chuckie) distinctive and memorable, a task which is easier said than done (a couple of the vapid girls in the class blend together a bit).
He's a worthy foil to Mrs. Mannerly, played with strong resolve by Jan Neuberger. Upon first introduction, Mrs. Mannerly looks to be supremely confident both in her own ability as a manners instructor and just in her own skin. Her mysterious past is played for laughs at the beginning before a trip to a bar with young Jeffrey exposes her own vulnerability (though his isn't too far behind). Hatcher derives plenty of jokes from the archaic conventions of proper manners and of the sheer absurdity of a manners institution itself ("Manners don't kill people..."). But heart is what this play really has.
Mrs. Mannerly runs at the MRT through Nov. 17. Tickets start at $20. For dates and more information, call 978-654-4678 or visit mrt.org.
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