LOWELL — Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Mrs. Mannerly’’ aims for laughs and something more. But it’s not clear whether even the playwright knows what that something more is.
Hatcher likes to challenge himself by ranging across genres. I admired his “Three Viewings,’’ a trio of linked monologues set in a funeral home, which was performed at New Repertory Theatre a couple of years ago. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’’ Hatcher’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, currently at Stoneham Theatre, is an artful and gripping dramatization of Stevenson’s story.
“Mrs. Mannerly,’’ now at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, is a 90-minute two-hander that revolves around the friendship that develops between a boy named Jeffrey and his etiquette teacher, Helen Anderson Kirk, nicknamed Mrs. Mannerly, in Steubenville, Ohio, in the fall of 1967. The director of the Merrimack Rep production is Mark Shanahan, who portrayed Jeffrey in an earlier production of “Mrs. Mannerly’’ at Penguin Rep Theatre in Stony Point, N.Y.
Hatcher drew heavily from his own childhood experiences, and those autobiographical elements give “Mrs. Mannerly’’ the general shape of a memory play. (The playwright also makes sure to drop in references to such cultural totems of the baby boom generation as “Leave It to Beaver,’’ “Gilligan’s Island,’’ Norman Bates, and Walter Cronkite.) But the cavalcade of gags and one-liners consistently pull the play in the direction of broad comedy. Talented though he is, Hatcher can’t pull off this marriage.
Nonetheless, Jan Neuberger, a veteran of Broadway and off-Broadway who is marking her 40th year as an actor, gleams like polished silver in the role of Mrs. Mannerly. Neuberger brings a sly humor to her portrayal of a woman who is nowhere near as starchy as she appears, even if she is attired in a fastidiously proper blue outfit and likes to brandish a Stonehenge-size copy of Emily Post’s guide to good manners.
As Jeffrey, Matthew Schneck adroitly shuttles back and forth from the boy Jeffrey was to the man he is, remembering the lessons that unfolded in the second-floor rumpus room of the Steubenville YMCA — and the exacting teacher who gave those lessons to generations of local residents. “Like the great Steubenvillians of old — Edwin Stanton, Jimmy the Greek, and Dean Martin — Helen Anderson Kirk bestrode our world like a colossus,’’ Jeffrey says. (Schneck also plays numerous other characters.)
Mrs. Mannerly’s eight-week manners lessons culminate with a final test in the form of a recitation by each student, complete with the taking of tea, before the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. No student has ever scored a 100. Jeffrey is determined to be the first to scale that summit. One by one, for sundry reasons, his classmates disappear from the class, and eventually it’s just Jeffrey and Mrs. Mannerly. Complications ensue that put the boy on a very public collision course with his forbidding mentor.
As events unfold, the playwright apparently wants us to ponder the possibility that Mrs. Mannerly’s obsession with social niceties — anachronistic though that sort of thing seemed by 1967, the freewheeling year that brought us the Summer of Love — served as a kind of bulwark against life’s sudden storms. While she may seem invincible to her young charges, Mrs. Mannerly has evidently known sadness and defeat; there’s a secret in her past, involving Chicago and her career as an actress, that she would prefer remain hidden, and that Jeffrey is determined to uncover. Neuberger skillfully captures the vulnerability beneath Mrs. Mannerly’s certitude.
The problem, though, is that the playwright dives into these deeper waters only after devoting a large chunk of the play to quippy, cartoonish, and only fitfully amusing reconstructions of the etiquette classes. So the secondary story line feels tacked on and underdeveloped, following, as it does, protracted sequences involving a boy with a perpetually runny nose, a girl with a strange fixation on J. Edgar Hoover, a misunderstanding over the spelling and meaning of “aspic,’’ and so on.
While Hatcher’s play is ultimately too slender and disjointed to be fully satisfying, there’s something touching about Mrs. Mannerly’s insistence on good manners and civil discourse. Her world has vanished, but you can’t help but harbor a small hope that her values have managed to survive, however scarce contemporary proof of their existence may be.