Nun Done

I couldn't tell if the holiday choir that kicked off the surprisingly dreary Sister's Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi's Gold was for real or not. Are they deliberately off-key, I wondered, and that's the joke? My uncertainty grew as this overlong evening dragged on and on. How, I tried to guess, could the usually charming Patti Hannon be falling so flat? And where, I fretted, were all the laughs in this "comedy"?

Sister's Christmas is the third in a trilogy of nun comedies written by Maripat Donovan, directed by Marc Silva, and starring the usually amusing Hannon, who's also currently appearing in the same role in the two other interactive Catechism plays at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Maybe that's the problem: Hannon, as Sister, is overworked. That would explain why, on opening night, she often appeared to be lost, fumbling for lines and occasionally repeating entire sections of the script she'd already read.

Hearing Donovan's "new" material once was bad enough, thank you. While the setup for the other shows is fresh and witty, this just-unleashed holiday version is relentlessly unfunny. Somehow, Donovan has managed to pass over the thousands of potential punch lines to be mined from any discussion of the holidays in favor of baldly bland and sometimes flat-out confusing wisecracks that lead nowhere. The author fills most of Act Two casting a Nativity pageant, which leads to endless banter with dimwitted audience members who get dragged onstage to enact the Christ child's birth. Therein lies the trouble with these interactive shows: They rely for laughs on always-unfunny audiences to keep things moving. Donovan and Hannon have made this formula work in the past with comedy built to riff on these folks; here, there are next to no crafty comebacks to the inanities spouted by the would-be comics in the audience. Sister's cranky reprimands, studded with ecumenical phraseology, have always made these audience interactions seem funnier than they are. (References to genuflecting and ejaculation always make me titter, and even non-Catholics laugh when Sister tells whiny "students," "Yeah, well, offer it up.") Without this repartee, we're bereft.

Christmas Catechism doesn't work that hard at pretending that its audience is attending an adult catechism class, which is the conceit of its predecessors. This one is more of a standup routine in which Sister is here to discuss the meaning of Christmas and to untangle the mystery of what happened to the bag of gold presented to Baby Jesus at his birth. The pageant itself is little more than a parade of patrons dolled up in deliberately ugly costumes made from toilet seat covers and old bed sheets, a shtick that the maniacally middlebrow first-night audience found hilarious.

Maybe I've just seen too many of these nun shows. All I know is Hannon wasn't on her game on opening night, and even if she had been, Donovan's material was hardly worth memorizing in the first place. Just as when I'd been trapped in real-life catechism class as a child, I heaved an adult sigh of relief when this make-believe class — a mishmash of flavorless routines meant to cash in on our holiday good cheer — was finally dismissed.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela