Childhood alienation may be painful, but it can be mined later for entertaining anecdotes. In a new comedy, “Mrs. Mannerly,” receiving its West Coast premiere at Theatre 40, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher dramatizes his experience as a misfit boy in Steubenville, Ohio.
Nine-year-old Jeffrey (Richard Horvitz) is sent to an etiquette class taught by Mrs. Mannerly (Nan Tepper), a local legend who, although nearing obsolescence in 1967, doggedly preaches proper posture and table setting. His competitive fires ignited, Jeffrey resolves to be the only student to whom she has ever given a perfect score.
Week by week, he picks off his one-dimensional fellow students, all also played by Horvitz (who doesn’t always muster the flexibility required by this casting). Many of his characters have cloyingly similar high-pitched voices. He plays them in a campy style, a choice encouraged both by the text — the children’s sardonic observations evoke the snarls of middle-aged drunks — and by first-time director Robert Mackenzie, who is obviously eager for laughs. The drawback is that this Jeffrey, a man in little-boy drag, is not especially sympathetic.
His treatment of Mrs. Mannerly, far from the heartwarming bond that the playwright seems to have intended, is distastefully narcissistic. Out of class, Mrs. Mannerly is a tragic figure, spending her evenings at the bar of the hotel where she lives. Learning that she may have a scandalous past, Jeffrey acquires a manila envelope that then plays a significant role in a climactic scene in which he sacrifices his own dream to protect his teacher’s reputation. But from what? The envelope is never opened.