Good manners, as the saying goes, don't cost anything—unless, it turns out, you pay a local etiquette maven for lessons in the finer points of tableware and the subtleties of verbal communication. Apparently playwright Jeffrey Hatcher endured just such a course at some point; his loosely autobiographical Mrs. Mannerly takes place in 1967 in Steubenville, Ohio, when Hatcher was a pup. The primary setting is a YMCA rumpus room converted into a den of sophistication by the lady everyone calls Mrs. Mannerly (Barbara June Patterson), and in the early going we have Jeffrey (Phyllis Wright) lobbying for a coveted spot in the class (it turns out possession of a signed check grants one access). Wright plays young Jeffrey as far too wise for his years, then also portrays the other kids in the class: the goody-goody Chucky, runny-nosed Ralph, and all-around hater Kim. Jeffrey proceeds to see his fellow students get tripped up and kicked out one by one (aiding the process whenever possible), all the while trying to solve the goofy mystery that ties everything together. Mrs. Mannerly, it seems, has a past (Patterson gives a melodramatic double take whenever the city of Chicago is mentioned; Wright obligingly rewinds reality so we can watch it twice). Hatcher's dialogue is typically smart, funny, and subversive (talking about the manners class, young Jeffrey remarks, "It was like we were going to church, only we cared."), and a growing wistful tone is effectively undercut when it emerges that this is the story of a young boy in desperate need of escape from his small-town surroundings. We need some kind of final crisis, obligingly provided by Jeffrey's etiquette demo before the Daughters of the American Revolution (big surprise: things don't go as planned), which leads to the downfall of Mrs. Mannerly's genteel empire. Nowhere here are we asked to do much more than luxuriate in witty dialogue delivered with a deft touch (director Michael Robbins keeps the focus light without pressing too hard on the laugh lines), and while the ramparts of dramatic greatness remain unbreached, a sweet, 90-minute mood lifter always has its time and place.
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