Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Mrs. Mannerly,” now in its New York premiere at Penguin Rep in Stony Point, is a slight, sweet, one-act comedy.
The two-person play, which runs about 80 minutes, stars Diane Ciesla as the strait-laced, etiquette-teaching title character and Mark Shanahan as everyone else, including the narrator, a character named “Master Jeffrey Hatcher.”
When Master Jeffrey arrives at the second-floor rumpus room of the Third Street YMCA in Steubenville, Ohio, on Oct. 1, 1967, it is late in the day: The gentler ’50s have given way to a Vietnam Era where manners take a back seat to matters political.
Still, here is Jeffrey, doing what generations of Steubenvillians have done: Climbing those stairs to learn etiquette from Helen Anderson Kirk, known to all as Mrs. Mannerly.
For 36 years — if their parents’ checks cleared and they didn’t act up too much over the eight-week course — Mrs. Mannerly imparted her knowlege of table settings and other social graces.
In all those years, no one had ever received a perfect score at the final program, a coming-out tea at the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Hatcher, the character, takes that as a challenge.
Hatcher, the playwright (he also wrote the book for the short-lived Broadway musical, “Never Gonna Dance”) takes it as inspiration for a character study.
“Mrs. Mannerly” is an interesting bookend to Penguin’s 33rd season, which began with Tom Dudzick’s “Over the Tavern.” That play also included a domineering woman, Sister Clarissa, who was likewise befuddled by one of her students.
While Sister Clarissa’s moment of weakness came by heart attack, Mrs. Mannerly’s armor-piercing — which won’t be revealed here — comes through a device that seems wholly out of character.
That bit of authorly sleight-of-hand aside, the performances are fine.
As Mrs. Mannerly, Ciesla is appropriately rigid and icy, peppering her students with questions and doling out silver spoons for exemplary work. She masters the smile that makes up in brilliance what it lacks in sincerity.
To borrow a line, she may be fake, but she’s no phony.
Ciesla might remind some of Holland Taylor, from TV’s “Two and a Half Men,” another actress who knows how to play icy.
When Ciesla lets that facade fall — and we know that’s coming — she reveals a lonely woman regretting her life’s choices.
Shanahan, who directed the memorable “Lady in Black” at Penguin a couple of years back and appeared in last season’s “Women Who Steal,” breathes life into a host of characters.
He is old Jeffrey, Master Jeffrey, and several classmates:?the brown-nose Chucky Thompson, the runny-nosed Ralph Katz, the hair-twirling Kim McCowan and the “whatever” girl, Jamie Hauser.
To pull this off, he gives each a small identifying gesture that works like a charm.
He’s also Patsy Lopresta, a 1959 alumna of Mrs. Mannerly’s class who brings a bit of the real-world into that second-floor rumpus room.
The scene where Patsy teaches Jeffrey to cha-cha is quite funny, as Shanahan is playing both roles, flipping from one to the other in a pas de deux that is short un.
As this is his play, and he is the narrator, Hatcher is able to play things his way, including a funny bit where he rewinds the action to stress a point.
Director Joe Brancato, Penguin’s artistic director, has a steady hand on the comedy here and keeps the pace rapid.
The laughs at “Mrs. Mannerly” aren’t exactly from the belly.
One might call them more mannerly.
When: Through Oct. 24. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Penguin Rep, 7 Crickettown Road, Stony Point.
Tickets: $33 (Half-price for those 21 and younger.)
Carlo D’Amore’s one-man show, “No Parole,” — about growing up with his mother, the con-artist — plays the next three Sundays at Penguin. Directed by Margarett Perry, “No Parole” plays at 7 p.m. Oct. 10, 17 and 24. $20, $15 for subscribers.
Photo by Zachary Spitzer: Diane Ciesla and Mark Shanahan in “Mrs. Mannerly.”