Jeffrey Hatcher has been Central New York’s most-produced contemporary American playwright for the past 10 years, but many people still don’t know his name. Simply New Theater’s production of his A Picasso five years ago brought Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Awards to Bill Molesky and Shannon Tompkins. They were also cast in 2008 for Three Viewings, a black comedy set in a funeral parlor. Nine years ago Le Moyne College produced Hatcher’s Smash!, a comedy based on a little-read George Bernard Shaw novel. Three years ago Appleseed Productions gave us his revisionist Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which evil turns out to be pandemic. Even Syracuse Stage likes Hatcher, but his rewrite of The Turn of the Screw, seen last fall, did not show him to best advantage.
If you want to encounter Jeffrey Hatcher at his screamingly, hilarious max, you have to see his Mrs. Mannerly at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company. It’s about taking a class in etiquette in 1967.
Ah, 1967: the summer of love! Rolling Stone was founded. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was released. Previously undisplayed body hair, both male and female, could be glimpsed just before intermission in Galt MacDermot’s suggestively titled Hair at New York City’s Public Theatre.
At that very moment in the gritty Ohio River town of Steubenville, home of Dean Martin, a 10-year-old boy who had been a klutz at anything practical, who looked upon playing Little League baseball as a form of penance, was trudging to a shabby, upstairs room over the YMCA to take etiquette lessons. He wanted to be good at something. His name is Jeffrey Hatcher.
Yes, Mrs. Mannerly is a memory play. We see two performers: Elizabeth Meadows Rouse is always the Junoesque title character, whose name on a passport would be Mrs. Kirk, and Kitchen Theatre favorite Karl Gregory, who portrays everyone else, starting with the playwright- narrator, sometimes standing downstage or at stage left, and his 10-year-old self. He also delivers four students of both genders, a dissolute high school drama teacher and a young female star graduate of the etiquette program who was nonetheless the first woman in Steubenville to walk around with a bare midriff. Gregory always wears the same neat blazer with tie and trousers and never uses a prop.
A graduate of the Syracuse University Drama Department, Gregory made his mark while here with the 2000 productions of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but in Ithaca he’s become something of a legend, along with a few gigs in Manhattan. He was nominated for one of the very first SALT Awards, and is best remembered for Kitchen’s 2003 mounting of Becky Mode’s Fully Committed, in which he played 38 roles. Put another way, we can tell that since Kitchen did not immediately announce the title of the summer comedy; this was a case of the actor finding the right play rather than a scheduled production needing to find the right actor.
So-so reviews greeted the 2010 Manhattan opening of Mrs. Mannerly when a nice, mild-mannered guy played Hatcher and the other parts. Yet the role cries out for someone darker and deeper. From his first entrance Gregory is tightly coiled; he’s suppressing an unspeakable demonic energy that could erupt at any moment. We know instantly when he’s snapped into a new character because the additional persona takes hold, as in a seizure.
In their initial encounters, where Mrs. Mannerly coolly explains the protocols of saying, “Good morning” and “Good day,” or angrily denounces the outrage of interrupting another speaker, it looks as though the dialogue between the two is a restaging of Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont. But small differences lead to profound ones. Mrs. Mannerly is never flustered, cuts back with a quick wit and is always a jump ahead of young Jeffrey. When he asks why he has to learn the polka among other dances, she explains, “When affluent, you may hire a housekeeper. And she will invite you to her child’s wedding.”
The two Hatcher characters, both the older narrator and the student, keep up a commentary on pop culture of the moment, clearly meant to be a snack table of trivia for boomers in the audience, such as, “What was F Troop but McHale’s Navy with Indians?” Along with this come asides about classic movies, with soundtracks, like the zither in The Third Man, that are efficiently delivered by sound designer Ariana Hawthorne-Davis.
We also pick up two other thematic threads around here. One is the aesthetic education of the now famous playwright, and second is the emotional pain of feeling like a failure at age 10. Success in Mrs. Mannerly’s class might seem the most frivolous of goals, but we come to see it as a means of redemption from a sense of worthlessness.
Much of the hilarity during the middle part of the play comes from Hatcher and Gregory’s skewering of the other students. They include a shameless, smarmy sycophant boy; a miscreant who wipes his running nose on his hand; a jumpy, paranoid right-wing girl who worships J. Edgar Hoover; and a sullen, inarticulate girl who’s kind of a Goth before the coinage of that term. Gradually, through misadventures and unpaid tuition, the others are all eliminated from the class. Finally, young Jeffrey and Mrs. Mannerly find themselves the only ones left for the finale of the instruction. That will be a display of perfect manners as a kind of afternoon’s entertainment for a meeting of the assembled members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, what passed for privileged high society in Steubenville.
Simultaneously with the dispersal of the rest of the class, Mrs. Mannerly has become much more candid with Jeffrey, more out of needfulness than a growing sweetness for him. To play out some of Jeffrey’s fantasies about Mrs. Mannerly, as well as some moments of unanticipated candor, Elizabeth Meadows Rouse must break violently from character. Additionally, through an unlikely conflation of coincidence, dumb luck and snooping on the part of allies, Jeffrey learns that Mrs. Mannerly harbors a secret. The episode is so deeply taboo that she cannot acknowledge having been in the city where it took place. Thus a deep sense of self for both of them is riding on the performance with the D.A.R.
Director Margarett Perry, one of the Kitchen’s favorites, has a sound hand on Mrs. Mannerly, with
strong assistance by scenic and lighting designer David L. Arsenault.
It’s as dark a comedy as any of Hatcher’s plays, like A Picasso or his version of Jekyll & Hyde. But for the delivery of laughter, it’s the best we’ve heard from him in these parts.
This production runs through July 22. See Times Table for information.