By Beki Pineda
MRS. MANNERLY. Written by Jeffrey Hatcher; directed by Edith Weiss. Produced by The Arvada Center (6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada) through Feb. 21. Tickets available at 720-898-7200 or www.arvadacenter.org.
Frequently during talkbacks with playwrights, they are asked, “Where do you get your ideas for plays?” In this case, Jeffrey Hatcher returned to a chapter of his life as a pre-teen and the etiquette classes he was forced to attend. Being untalented in sports, his character relishes this chance to succeed in something . . . anything. He learns early on that none of Mrs. Mannerly’s students has ever achieved a perfect score in the end-of-class presentation to the “DAR biddies.” At last, a goal with the chance of achievement.
But first, he has to get rid of the competition, which includes his arrogant classmate Chucky, overconfident Kim, gross Ralph (who uses the wall as his handkerchief) and rebellious Jamie. Through various methods, he finds himself the lone remaining student in the etiquette class. The next step is talking Mrs. Mannerly into continuing it with only one student. Once again, he succeeds. His lessons and preparation for the all-important presentation form the structure of the play. By a devious bit of subterfuge, Jeffrey comes into possession of information about Mrs. Mannerly that might prove embarrassing. He holds it in abeyance in case he needs ammunition for blackmail . . . which creates his own conflict of conscience. As Mrs. Mannerly explains, “Even loyalty is a form of manners.”
In a tour de force performance by Graham Ward, both young and old Jeffrey come to life, along with all of his other classmates, members of his family, and Patsy, his dance partner. Smoothly slipping in and out of the various characters without ever losing the audience, Ward creates a whirlwind that keeps the dust in a swirl. His appearance and behavior—he looks like a young Martin Short—perfectly suit this merry-go-round of merriment. The twinkle in his eye and his quick comebacks make the dance between adult memory and adolescent reality believable. I’m sure, however, that some of the clever repartee is a result of “I wish I had said that” moments as the adult playwright looked back on his relationship with this obviously significant personage from his past.
As Mrs. Mannerly, his partner in this duet is the brilliant Leslie O’Carroll, who has graced Denver stages for many years. Her calm, (dare I say) mannered air of surety provides a needed balance to Ward’s manic performance. With her salt-and-pepper hair, proper dark-blue suit and string of pearls, she is the epitome of a long-gone era of polite society and correct behavior. Her classes teach skills that these kids will rarely use again; they’ve even fallen out of favor with the parents she taught in decades past. She is a relic and she knows it, but she is maintaining her place in the community and holding her head high as long as she can. She is saved from being stodgy and bitter by her sparkling sense of humor and easy knowledge of the minds of her young charges. Chalk up another beautiful performance for Ms. O’Carroll.
The set by Brian Mallgrave captures the musty flavor of the rumpus room of the local YMCA where the classes are held, down to the scrubbed-out basketball court lines. In addition to Mrs. Mannerly’s suit and sweaters. Jeffrey’s short-legged school uniform also places the play in the exact era. Another winner for director Edith Weiss and the Arvada Center.
WOW factor: 8.5