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Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011

In Tandem's Well-Mannered Comedy

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What were you doing in 1967? Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher was a 9-year-old boy who attended a weekly etiquette class in his Ohio hometown. His experiences became the blueprint for Mrs. Mannerly, which opened Friday at the Tenth Street Theatre. The production, by In Tandem Theatre Company, continues through Oct. 23.

Unlike other thinly disguised autobiographical works, this one seems pretty straightforward. The two-person cast includes a boy, named Jeffrey Hatcher, and a longtime etiquette teacher, who calls herself Mrs. Mannerly. She is a lonely spinster who has taught such classes to the townsfolk for the past 36 years. The play hinges on the following plot point: Will Jeffrey be the first etiquette student to get a perfect score on his final exam?

As audiences soon learn, Mrs. Mannerly's class goes far beyond the proper use of “please” and “thank you.” As Jeffrey rises to become the class star, other etiquette students begin dropping out for various reasons. (Explanations would spoil the fun, so no hints here.) Most of the show takes place in the etiquette “classroom,” a dumpy upstairs workroom at the local YMCA.

In Tandem has matched two cast members who work particularly well together: Chris Flieller, the company's artistic director (as Jeffrey), and Jacque Troy (Mrs. Mannerly). While Troy starts the class with the no-nonsense manner of a military drill sergeant, she invariably softens as she gets to know Jeffrey. Flieller, in addition to playing Jeffrey, also takes on the roles of his classmates and other residents of the town. His skill at effortlessly switching characters (and genders) is as funny here as it is in the company's annual holiday hit, Scrooge in Rouge. Perhaps Flieller's greatest challenge is convincing the audience that a balding, middle-aged man is actually a 9-year-old boy.

It's clear that playwright Jeffrey Hatcher is no Neil Simon, who also has mined his past for script material. There are truly hilarious moments in Mrs. Mannerly, including a priceless bar scene in the second act. Other jokes are groaners, and some simply fall flat. But if Mrs. Mannerly isn't perfect, it's neither the fault of the cast nor director Jane Flieller. In Tandem has created a fun and funny play that will certainly bring back memories for those who can recall their own “good manners” class. 
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