Summer Comedies at LWT Take Audiences
to Spiritual Heights, Faraway Galaxies

By Amy J. Barry

You might say supernatural forces are at play in two summer comedies running simultaneously at Long Wharf Theatre—one looks at the big theological questions about heaven and hell and the other takes us on a wild ride through outer space.

‘Til Death Do Us Part: Late Nite Catechism 3 is the newest installment in the one-nun Late Nite Catechism series, which has graced the Long Wharf Stage for the last several seasons.

Each production focuses on a different set of lessons that Sister is teaching—this one on the Sacraments of Marriage and Last Rites—and includes a humorous Catholic version of TV’s Newlywed Game.

What’s so terrific about the Late Nite Catechism series, written by Maripat Donovan, is that although the set has remained the same in all the shows—an early 1960s Catholic school classroom with a large chalkboard and little wooden chairs, religious icons scattered about— several different actors have brought their own styles and personality to the role of Sister and the interactive ad-lib structure allows it to be an entirely different show with each new audience.

Starring in this production is Nonie Newton-Breen, whose performance is informed and enhanced by her experiences in a large Irish Catholic family in Chicago, where she attended Sacred Heart School. This is Newton-Breen’s third time performing in a Late Nite production at Long Wharf. Her dry and genuine delivery and quick, biting retorts are quite brilliant to behold.

It is also fascinating to observe how quickly the actor becomes the teacher and the audience acquiesces and becomes the class. Some people—I’m assuming those who attended Catholic school—fall eerily into the roles of fearful children trying to please Sister and almost don’t seem to realize that hey folks, this isn’t real.

Let’s use my husband as an example of the show’s interactivity, since he became a major player in the performance we attended. A veteran of parochial school, he couldn’t help but mouth off twice (albeit politely) to Sister’s questions, which was exactly what he did all those years ago at Stamford Catholic High.

When asked, “What is grace?” he responded, “What you say at dinner” but it was his answer when called on a second time to name the sacraments, and instead started naming the Seven Deadly Sins, that landed him for a good 10 minutes in the tiny chair on stage facing the wall, which for a 6’2” guy is funny in itself.

One Man Star Wars Trilogy, on the other hand, still has me scratching my head in wonder. Okay, I admit I was never much of a fan of the George Lucas movies but this frenetic one hour, one-man show, written and performed by Charles Ross and directed by TJ Dawe felt mostly like a lot of white noise to me.

The thirty-something Ross, wearing a black one-piece jumpsuit on an empty set—only the changing lighting offers any visual variation—in one hour recreates his fond childhood memories of the tongue-and-cheek sci-fi adventures and takes the audience through three films: Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

Admittedly, this is no easy feat and Ross’s ability to play both sides in a battle to the finish between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker; the roles of every character from R2-D2 to Yoda to Princess Leah; hold two-way conversations while constantly changing voices and accents; and create every single spacey sound effect as well as loudly hum the dramatic movie music scores, is more than impressive.

And yet, even though I’m not Catholic, I can relate more to Late Nite Catechism’s universal themes than I can to this show, which it seems unless you’re a fully-entrenched Star Wars aficionado—like Ross who admits to having seen the original more than 400 times—wow!) you may have a hard time picking up on and appreciating its very subtle and often obtuse humor.

That said, what matters more than this critic’s opinion is the audience response and on opening nigh it was loud and enthusiastic. Plus, the fact that Ross has already performed the play 1,200 times in more than 180 cities across four continents means there must be more to it than is meeting my eye.

(box) One-Man Star Wars is on the mainstage of Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive in New Haven through July 26. ‘Till Death Do Us Part…is on Stage II through Aug. 16. For tickets and info call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org.

This review was published in the Living section of Shore Publishing Community Newspapers on July 22-23, 2009.


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