Monday, Oct. 10, 2011

Flieller and Troy: A Comedy For Two

In Tandem Theatre’s MRS. MANNERLY

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Jeffrey Hatcher is one of the single best comedic playwrights working today. I could go on for thousands of words about all the stuff that he’s written, but his Three Viewings (which I saw with Kopper Bear productions several years ago) and Murderers (which I saw with Next Act considerably more recently) had some of the cleverest comic lines I’ve ever heard. And while his Ten Chimneys (which the Rep produced this season) wasn’t his best work, it’s still pretty good. It’s a pleasure to see that his Mrs. Mannerly, which runs this month with In Tandem Theatre is a lot more enjoyable than it has a right to be.

The premise feels kind of weak—Hatcher is the main character here—remembering a class in manners he took as a child. The sort of coming of age comedy one might expect from such a biographical premise has been pretty well explored since the dawn of comedy. Really the only reason why I was looking forward to it at all was because it had been written by Hatcher. Fortunately, that was enough. Even more fortunately, In Tandem’s two-person cast lovingly delivers the script to audiences at the Tenth Street Theatre with a kind of grace befitting a pair of talented comic actors who have been performing onstage for many, many years.

In Tandem co-founder Chris Flieller plays the role of Jeffrey Hatcher. As witnessed by pictures online, Hatcher is kind of a larger overweight kind of a guy. Flieller isn’t. (He’s actually kind of a small guy. And it never occurred to me until I came round to writing this review, but I actually kind of admire him for  being smaller than I am . . . ) Hatcher’s weight is made reference to a couple of times over the course of the script. Being a smaller guy, there’s a little bit of incongruity there. But this is splitting hairs. Everything else about this show is a pleasure.

All on his own, Flieller has a really great comic voice. His sense of humor gells really well with Hatcher’s precisely because it’s not perfectly in synch with it. There’s kind of a synergy that comes out of that which is really, really appealing. Writing about his own, personal past, Hatcher’s work here has appeared to have gone through much less of a grind than so much of his other work. Work like Ten Chimneys, Armadale  and Tuesdays With Morrie end up holding Hatcher’s own, personal at a distance. It’ fun to watch him work from an exaggerated palette of his own childhood. The comedy here feels effortless without actually being effortless. The real trick is to bring that to the stage with the kind of playfulness that Hatcher had intended and Flieller does a good job of launchng that comedy into the audience.

The class in question is being taught by a former actress at some point in the childhood of a baby boomer. The teacher—one self-named Mrs. Mannerly is played with several layers of personality by the talented Jacque Troy, who is a lot of fun here. On one level, she is sort of a comic personification of Emily Post. And since that alone would become tiresome and downright boring if it were the only thing to string the character together, she’s also got that former stage actress angle to her personality that Troy seems to have a lot of fun with. Somewhere beyond it all, Troy is able to bring a wary wisdom to the role that ties the manners guru end of the character with the former actress persona. The character also owes quite a lot of her effect on the play to a sense of mystery that seems to permeate everything about her. Troy manages to play this out without exaggerating it too much.

Though there is some animosity between teacher and student, ultimately this is an ode to a bond between the two that is something of an extension of the type of script he was working on with Tuesdays With Morrie. It’s a type of relationship that isn’t explored enough. Teachers are a common part of out past that we never really give the kind of respect they deserve.

In Tandem Theatre’s production of Mrs. Mannerly runs through October 23rd at the Tenth Street Theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-271-1371.

 

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