Quirky ‘Mrs. Mannerly’ shows the audience the ropes on etiquette

PHOTO PROVIDED
Left, Joan Crooks as Mrs. Mannerly and Matt Harris as Jeffrey.

PHOTO PROVIDED Left, Joan Crooks as Mrs. Mannerly and Matt Harris as Jeffrey.

MILL HALL — Try not to smirk, but it may be wise to brush up on your manners before you see “Mrs. Mannerly.”

Millbrook’s final Cabaret attraction has remaining 7:30 p.m. performances, tonight, Friday and Saturday with the finale at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

When I initially learned the title of this show, I immediately thought that a popular actor Marc de la Concha might be cast as “Mrs. Mannerly.” The small statured but big talented de la Concha has often been featured in the Cabaret’s final productions, sometimes prompting a holdover. In recent summers, often with hilarious results, he has donned ladies’ wigs and dresses, either to portray a lovelorn advisor (“Miss Abigail”) or competing chef (“Kitchen Witches”).

But in hindsight, artistic director David Leidholdt in selecting “Mrs. Mannerly” may have been wise to bypass de la Concha (even if he was available) since the audience may have had some difficulty in totally believing de la Concha when the show turns serious.

“Mrs. Mannerly” is the name given to the long-time etiquette teacher whose classroom is on the former basketball court of the Steubenville, Ohio YMCA in 1966.

This comedy is the fictionalized memoirs of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s real-life attendance as a 10-year old student, determined to earn the first perfect score in “Mrs. Mannerly” 34-year career.

David Leidholdt, moving into the director’s chair for this show, taps two Millbrook veterans from last season to play the teacher and her pupil. Joan Crooks (who played the cantankerous Ouiser in “Steel Magnolias”) and Matt Harris (“Baskerville”) comprise the cast.

Crooks plays the demanding, somewhat enigmatic “Mrs. Mannerly,” and Harris portrays the precocious Jeffrey, out to succeed at all costs — meaning eliminating the competing classmates if necessary.

Harris, who played multiple characters in Millbrook’s previous seasons’ shows, succeeds using facial contortions and voice changes as he ferrets out other classmates traits, including those of an over-achiever, a “goth girl” and apple-polishing teacher’s pet.

It is Harris’s comments directly to the audience, often while “Mrs. Mannerly” is frozen in posture, that generates lots of laughs.

The show, despite its brief running time, and being played without intermission, is never hilarious, but always amusing.

Leidholdt’s sure direction is apparent when Jeffrey and his teacher compare their background in the funny bar scene (where the teacher gulps down three or four Scotches — or is it closer to nine?)

Although “Mrs. Mannerly” is concerned with posture and table settings, Crooks doesn’t display a very dramatic flare. But there is good teamwork and timing, especially in the final almost bittersweet scene when Jeffrey forsakes his chance for a perfect score to protect his teacher’s reputation and likely scandalous past.

There are many references to 60’s pop culture, with the audience not reacting to Jeffrey’s comments on Vietnam, but laughing at his description of “F Troop.”

The Cabaret, with this year’s questionable reconfigured seating, often sells out. With “Mrs. Mannerly” (unlike the rousing predecessor “Comedy of Tenors”), the Cabaret — rather than the show — may be the main attraction for brisk sales this weekend. Still, “Mrs. Mannerly” earns a strong passing grade as light-hearted summertime entertainment.

For more information, call the box office at 570-748-8083 or visit www.millbrookplay house.org

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