Creature of Habit

God willing, Late Nite Catechism is a class worth cutting

Time was when you went to the theater to be entertained, not to be entertaining, and nuns were scary creatures whose sexual repression made them want to beat little kids senseless. Those days are mostly gone. Today, theater comedy often relies on audiences to augment the shtick of the actors onstage and, if the production includes a woman in a hair shirt, you can bet she'll be cracking more jokes than knuckles.

Late Nite Catechismcombines two popular theater gimmicks -- audience participation and the funny nun -- and comes up with an entertainment that's familiar but not entirely unfunny. That's due in large part to Jodi Capeless, who, in the current production at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, overcomes the by-now-tedious aspects of these two trendy devices. Dressed in a traditional nun's habit, Capeless addresses the audience, who plays the part of her catechism class. Sister (we never learn her full name) stalks the stage, making jokes about Vatican II and demanding that various "students" describe the immaculate conception or recall who married Adam and Eve's son Cain. (The correct answer: No one. "He killed his brother, who'd want to marry him? Monica Lewinsky?")

Normally, Sister is portrayed by the comedy's co-author, Maripat Donovan, a Chicago actor who penned the piece with writer Vicki Quade after some friends laughed at Donovan's reminiscences of private Catholic school. Quade and Donovan have constructed what's meant to be the catechism class from hell. It's overseen by a stern but loving sister who hands out glow-in-the-dark rosaries to students who correctly answer questions about the stigmata and admonishes audience members for chewing gum during her "class."

Jodi Capeless in Late Nite Catechism.
Jodi Capeless in Late Nite Catechism.

This is all a lot funnier if you attended a private Catholic school and were abused by nuns. I can't imagine that a lot of Presbyterians find jokes about kids being bashed with rulers all that amusing. And the Jewish fellow with whom I attended the show wanted to know why Vatican II was so hilarious. To her authors' credit, Sister's numerous setups (explanations aimed at the "public school kids" in the audience who aren't up on their catechism) don't dilute her punch lines much, but once she starts explaining why the joke she just told was funny, it isn't anymore.

The real trouble here is that the funny-nun thing has a beard a mile long. And while Sister is no Maria Von Trapp (like the annoyingly nutty novices of the abysmal Nunsense musicals), she's not as wickedly irreverent as Christopher Durang's batty bride of Christ in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, either. Neither sweet enough to be an affectionate homage nor mean enough to be truly hilarious, Late Nite Catechism never really grabbed me. I want a Hun nun, threatening to beat Hell out of her students (like the ones my siblings recall) or making cracks about wimples and hair shirts while flirting with the guy in the front row. What Donovan delivers instead is a gently wisecracking Sister, who jokes about the Crucifixion, then delivers a solemn speech about the good old days before Vatican II.

That said, I should mention that Capeless is a charismatic Sister. Her whip-sharp responses to her audience's woeful attempts at humor kept the show buoyant, and had a colleague of mine convinced that these annoying folks were actors, planted in the audience to help move things along.

They were not. In fact, the entire script for this program is only about 65 pages long -- short even for a one-act -- and is reliant on Capeless' ability to squeeze laughs from hammy audience members who don't know when to quit. (Opening-night "students" included an uptight, aging Catholic schoolboy with all the answers and a scary transsexual who refused to spit out her gum.)

She succeeds. Her performance is the best thing about Late Nite Catechism, a play that might have been funnier in the good old days, before its gimmicks were worn out.

 
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