Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
By Jeffrey Hatcher
Directed by Mark Shanahan
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Lowell) I didn’t know there had to be rules about flashback nostalgia stories, but I think I’ve found one….if only I can decide which one.
First, let’s define the genre. Have you ever seen the movie A Christmas Story or The Wonder Years? Then you know the kind of show MRT’s Mrs. Mannerly is attempting. It’s the adult narrator looking back on his precocious tween self, with a wistful smile, to share lessons learned.
Now, onto the rule, which this production learned by breaking. Either you make sure the narrator is humbler and less interesting than his younger self, thus ensuring that we can tell he’s learned from his foibles and had to grow up dull like the rest of us or you don’t show that narrator at all and give him a voice-over. Otherwise, it appears, the show won’t work.
I’m afraid Mrs. Mannerly didn’t strike the right tone for such a genre story. In the play, a grown man talks about how, as a young boy in Ohio, he tried to ace charm school, which was taught by a rigid older woman who had a hint of mystery about her. Matthew Schneck (Jeffrey) plays the lead male/boy, as well as all of his classmates and a weird and brief love interest. Jan Neuberger (Mrs. Mannerly) is the teacher in question.
Director Mark Shanahan has trouble knowing when to scale back his actors to steer this production, and it’s most evident with the character of Jeffrey. Schneck is gregarious and works hard to please, but all his characters seem more at home with a stand-up routine or sketch comedy than a play. This might have worked, but I fear his central sin appears to be making his adult self too interesting, with a wiry delivery that makes us think Jeffrey had too much coffee. The adult Jeffrey’s smarminess is weirdly off-putting, which makes his nostalgic talk of slut-shaming a teen girl hard to stomach. Without our sympathy of the adult as an everyman, the younger Jeffrey comes across as a sociopath. While this may be akin to life, it’s a bit of a turnoff for this style of play.
Neuberger does better, but she’s asked to do less. Mrs. Mannerly is very close to the stern woman of mystery that we want, sort of a poor man’s Dame Judi Dench, but Neuberger gives us too much access to her, which allows the character’s mystery to dissipate. This becomes most apparent in moments where Jeffrey rewinds the action on stage to catch an odd moment of mystery from Mrs. Mannerly; it is there that we see too easily and too early that this stern character is a paper lion.
That being said, the story is sure to charm for anyone who has been forced to learn the archaic rules of formal cutlery and recitation. After all, a flashback is most easily accessed by those who have shared the experience. For the rest of us, we’ll have to settle for an approximation of a coming-of-age story.