As written, Late Night Catechism II isn't much more than an excuse to charge us twice for the same shtick. It's told in the same spirit as its predecessor, Late Night Catechism, which has been running for years at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. This sequel stars Patti Hannon as Sister, a ball-busting bride of Christ charged with our ecumenical upkeep -- the same actor in the same role as the other Late Night show.
Both plays are written by Maripat Donovan and directed by Marc Silvia, and are running concurrently at the Scottsdale Center, usually on different nights of the week. Both are set in adult catechism classes, where audience members pretend to be students of Hannon, who paces the stage, swinging her beads and cracking wise about Christ and his cronies. But if the sequel is really just an extension of the original, it's also, on most nights, at least as funny as its precursor. That's because Hannon is a master at improvisational comedy, which is the hallmark of this frequently hilarious homage to holiness.
Late Night II is really just a prolonged improv sketch, one in which Hannon must lob funny answers to any number of (often unfunny) questions posed by the audience. No matter how silly or stupid the question during the Sunday matinee I recently attended, Hannon always responded with something both amusing and instructive. It was a pleasant surprise to find that some of Sister's new material -- about the genesis of Catholicism, how it spawned other religions, and the current status of souls in Purgatory -- was actually enlightening. When it comes to the Vatican, Hannon appears to know what she's talking about, even if she peppers her instruction on all things Christly with a myriad of pop culture references: to video games, Joanie Loves Chachi, and a long and terrifically funny dissertation on the sins of Frank Sinatra (chief among them: Juliet Prowse).
Late Night Catechism II
Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street in Scottsdale
Call 480-994-2787 or see www.scottsdalearts.org
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Some of Sister's quips are obviously scripted ("The Eternally Suffering Sisters of Hope are opening a Starbucks in the lobby; they're hoping that the novices will come for a latte and stay for life."). Asked if communists go to Heaven, Sister quipped, "Yes, but they wind up on one of the lower floors -- in a room near the ice machine." When she busted a guy in the front row for chewing gum, she cracked, "Look at Christ on the cross. You think he wouldn't like to take a Dentine break?" Then she swiped the rest of his pack and gave it to someone who answered one of her questions correctly.
But most of the best material is stuff that Hannon is obviously pulling out of her hair shirt. When one nimrod asked, "Where do aborted babies go?" a question greeted with gasps from the audience, an unruffled Sister riffed on the placement of souls in Limbo and finished with a gentle chiding that still managed to be amusing.
Late Night II is irreverent but not irreligious, a balance that's hard to maintain when you're going for laughs at the expense of the church but don't want to piss off a potentially pious audience. The script's main riff is on the examination of conscience ("When in doubt, it's a sin"), so there are a lot of one-liners about good and evil. And an overview of Heaven and Hell ("Hell is like a jail sentence, except your bunk is on fire"), rendered entirely in felt, is a total crackup. It's funny mostly because Hannon is a mistress of improv, a wimpled wonder at making more of the same seem fresh and new.