Review: Mrs. Mannerly by Different Stages
by Michael Meigs
Jennifer Underwood and Suzanne Balling have worked together on stage before, perhaps most memorably in the 2009 Different Stages production of Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon which brought Balling a B. Iden Payne award as supporting actor in a comedy. That production, like the current staging of Mrs. Mannerly by Jeffrey Hatcher, was directed by Karen Jambon. Both works are lightly ironic comedies; both show these two very familiar and much applauded Austin actresses to great advantage.
Playwright Hatcher makes for us a first-person narrative of his own youthful self. The premise is cute, even silly: he's a bright gauche twelve-year-old, pretty much a loner uncomfortable with other kids. His parents sign him up for a class in etiquette given weekly at the YMCA by the august 'Mrs. Mannerly. Jennifer Underwood as the precise, demanding and somewhat absurd old lady has been giving this class for 36 years. This semester's class is made up of half a dozen young teens, each of them deftly sketched by Balling. It's a delicious evening, a sort of banquet of comic character -- Underwood as the immovable object and Balling as all those resisting forces.
Suzanne Balling in her new pixie cut is Jeffrey, proxy for the playwright. She steps out to narrate and comment, then slips back into the scene to deal and deliver clever flash characterizations. The class diminishes over the course of the semester as one and another of the young horribles drops out or disappears, till eventually only Jeffrey is left. Other characters pop briefly into view in Balling's skin, including a jovially drunken old high school drama teacher.
The piece shifts subtly, becoming a 'buddy movie' of sorts, affectionately showing the mellowing of the apparently stern old spinster with the mysterious past and the earnestly ambitious youngster who wants to excel at something, anything, even if it's only the demonstration at a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution of table setting, greetings, polite conversation and other genteel arts. Mrs. Mannerly assigns points for each activity. Usually this is a competition, but with the participants reduced to one, the striving is Jeffrey's in search of the never achieved 'perfect score.'
Beyond the artfully constructed comedy of manners and nostalgia lies a contemplation of the difficult arts of growing up and growing old. Underwood and Mrs. Mannerly are undisputably grownups but just as indisputably have the hearts of the young and wistful. Balling and Hatcher -- both the character and the playwright -- are musing about the accumulation of experience and understanding that accompanies us as we age. The contrasts pop out most forcefully and comically with the use of four-letter words and the asides when Balling speaks in the voice of the playwright.
This 90-minute evening is a fine opportunity to get to know the Santa Cruz Center for Culture, the repurposed locale of Aztlan Dance Company on the south side of east 7th Street across from Huston-Tillotson University and adjacent to Planned Parenthood (which makes its parking lot available to theatre patrons). It has the appealing scruffiness of a make-do theatre locale, and we can expect to see more performances there. Jennifer Underwood and Suzanne Balling combine to produce theatre to transform it not only into Steubenville, Ohio, in the 1960s but also into a magic lantern of memory.
March 24 - April 15, 2017
1805 E. 7th Street
Austin, TX, 78702