Playwright Jeffery Hatcher takes a delightful trip down memory lane in Mrs. Mannerly, his staged memoir of an etiquette class he once took under the tutelage of Mrs. Helen Anderson Kirk, aka the Emily Post of Steubenville, Ohio.

The latest offering from Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40, Mrs. Mannerly stars Richard Horvitz in a bravura performance as 10-year-old “Master Jeffrey”—and as assorted other pupils of the titular grand dame (Nan Teppper), who “like the great Steubenvillians of old, Edwin Stanton, Jimmy The Greek, and Dean Martin, bestrode our world like a colossus.”

Flashbacks take us back to the year 1967, when manners meant considerably more than they do in the 2010s, despite what some former flower-power loving hippies might have us think.

Take for example the imperious Mrs. Mannerly and her staunch insistence on rules being followed—or else. To wit: whenever a student like young Jeffrey might happen to blurt out a “What?” instead of the more courteous “I beg your pardon,” Mrs. Mannerly had no other recourse but to insist that the hapless offender put a quarter in the jar she had ever at the ready, and should any student happen not to have a quarter on his or her person, Mrs. Mannerly was quick to inform the whippersnapper, “You can start a tab.”

 Unlike his sports-loving classmates, our young hero was the kind of 10-year-old who carried a briefcase to class, and not just any but “a double-o-seven From Russia With Love briefcase with missile launcher, knife compartment, and smoke bombs.” It was after all the mid-1960s, and the master spy on Her Majesty’s secret service was but one of the characters Master Jeffrey spent his days pretending to be, a list which also included Bert Parks, Bat Masterson, Napoleon Solo, John Steed from The Avengers, and millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, “but not Batman himself.”

Was it any wonder, therefore, that young Master Jeffrey relished learning the very same rules of politesse that were second nature to the abovementioned gentlemen?

The same could not be said for Jeffrey’s fellow etiquette classmates Kim MacQuown, Chucky Thompson, Ralph Katz, Jamie Hauser, Bill Crossky, and Patsy Lopresta, each of whom the brilliant Horvitz imbues with his or her own distinctive personality traits.

As Jeffrey tells it, Kim’s “signature peculiarity was her adoration of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, whose book G-Men was published at a time when “most of Mr. Hoover’s readers assumed the G stood for Government, not Gay Closeted Self-Hating, Cross-Dresser.” As for Chucky, the sycophantic lad was “otherwise known as Chucky the brown-nose pussy.” (“Next to Chucky Thompson, I was like a black dude,” Jeffrey informs us.) Then there was runny-nosed Ralph, who spent all day long wiping his nose up with the palm of his hand, “so, by the end of the day there was a long black streak running from the tip of his nose to the middle of his forehead. It was disgusting if you knew what it was, but if you didn’t you just thought it was Ash Wednesday, and he was, like, this overachieving Catholic guy.”

 As the above quips ought to make perfectly clear, Jeffrey Hatcher (both play-writing adult and his previously 10-year-old self) could give Neil Simon a lesson in one-liners, and with the effervescent Horvitz giving the proverbial performance of a lifetime as Jeffrey child and Jeffrey adult along with assorted others in the youngster’s life, there’s hardly a moment when Mrs. Mannerly doesn’t inspire giggles, chuckles, and even som bona fide guffaws.

 As far as plot is concerned, Mrs. Mannerly focuses on Master Jeffrey’s quest for a heretofore unachieved perfect score on his teacher’s 100-point final test, one which involved a recitation, a display of poise, and “tea with a full, formal silver setting,” all of this performed before the local chapter of the Daughters Of The American Revolution with every mistake a one-point deduction.

There’s also Jeffrey’s pre-Internet investigation into Mrs. Mannerly’s claims never to have been in Chicago despite damning evidence to the contrary. (A book containing “theater reviews from every play ever staged in the United States since 1900” clearly stated that in a 1929 production of The Secret Of Mrs. X, “the part of Dulcy was taken by Miss Helen Anderson” before it was reassigned to Miss Jeanette Pricehammer, “an actress new to the Milwaukee theater scene.”) Is it any wonder, then, that young Jeffrey wanted to ferret out what had happened between Chicago and Milwaukee, and why this part of Mrs. Mannerly’s past life was taboo?

 Under Robert Mackenzie’s sparkling direction, Mrs. Mannerly comes as the best possible November/December surprise, a feel-good show that doesn’t have a single holly-jolly jingle bell in it but fills you with the holiday spirit nonetheless.

Though Horvitz’s infectiously joyful performance as Jeffrey Hatcher’s younger alter ego (and his deliciously droll takes on various supporting characters) is the production’s showy star turn, Mrs. Mannerly wouldn’t be nearly as successful without the subtle strength of Tepper’s very real Dowager Of Decorum for Horvitz to play off of. (Playwright Hatcher does give Tepper a terrific let-loose scene as well, when Jeffrey treats his teacher to a dozen or so shots of Johnny Walker!)

 Though design consultant Jeff G. Rack’ set is more a suggestion of the various Steubenville locales in which Mrs. Mannerly takes place than his usually more detailed Theatre 40 designs, Ric Zimmerman’s expert lighting, Michèle Young’s character-defining costumes, and stage manager Bill Froggatt’s sound design (which opens the show with a cleverly chosen Theme From Perry Mason) are all topnotch. Kudos too to the white-gloved hands of production assistant Susan Mermet for some ingenious Mackenzie-inspired legerdemain.  Mrs. Mannerly is produced by David Hunt Stafford.

I wasn’t too sure going in to Mrs. Mannerly that an etiquette class would provide ample substance for a two-act comedy, albeit a relatively short two-actor two-acter. I needn’t have worried. With the irrepressible Richard Horvitz center stage and the venerable Nan Tepper there to rein little Jeffrey in when needed, Mrs. Mannerly comes as a welcome end-of-year surprise.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
November 27, 2012
Photos: Ed Krieger

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