‘Til Death Do Us Part: Late Night Catechism 3 at Long Wharf Theatre

David Begelman

It’s amazing what a good time you can have at Long Wharf’s modest Theatre II, especially when hilarious monologues are staged. But then again, such treats are not unexpected, given Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein’s knack for dishing up just the right fare for tickling the funny bone. Or might it be more serious than this, like CPR for audience members who have a hard time catching their breath?

The right cocktail for merriment is the simply exquisitely calibrated combo of playwright Maripat Donovan and actor Nonie Newton-Breen. The one-woman Late Night Catechism plays are several in number, including Sister Strikes Again!, although this reviewer had already been treated to last year’s Sister’s Christmas Catechism, by the same playwright with the same performer.

Ms. Donovan’s works are within a tradition of comedies about Catholicism laughing at itself, like Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and Dan Goggin’s Nunsense. Her comedic spin on matters religious in her series is, like those other worthy efforts, perhaps the best kind of innocent P. R. for a faith that has had its fair share of knocks in recent years. And Nonie Newton-Breen as “Sister,” a no-nonsense nun, although less well known than George Carlin and Jackie Mason, is, technically speaking, right up there with them. And there’s a sound basis for the accolade.

Ms. Newton-Breen delivers such a magical mixture of scripted and extemporaneous humor, it’s really hard to know which is which. She always has the audience in the palm of her hand, whether chiding them about their venial failures, or delivering quips about religion that leave them howling. Her character pretends to be hard-bitten, but you always sense the mushy and sentimental interior underneath her crusty and biting exterior.

The actress has been touring the country in the one-woman Late Night Catechism series for the last eight years, and her highly developed improvisational skills were nurtured in the past in such forums as Chicago’s famous Second City Theatre.

The show is an audience interactive one, with much of its humor generated by Sister’s relationship to it. The premise is that audience members are for the most part “sinners,” whose small or serious transgressions—including filing in late to the performance—become the targets for some of the best humor around these days in the Connecticut theatrical circuit.

Did you know that in the event of extra-terrestrial life, Sister informs us we must remember that “Aliens are still God’s creatures,” although “Heaven is going to look like the bar in Star Wars.” Outer space research at the Vatican is aimed at “Baptizing aliens right away before Angelina Jolie gets her hands on them.” And calls to good works are not long in coming from Sister. She recommends rounding up “A hundred Knights of Columbus to storm the Scientology Center to save Katie.”

Other quips involve astrology, Paris Hilton, Galileo, defining a sacrament, relocation to Mars, Dick Cheney, Christians and Jews who meet in bars, babies baptized in E.R.s, transubstantiation, Sicilians, marrying pagans, concerts in heaven, closing down limbo, St. Anthony and St. Christopher, marriage for priests, and fervent prayers to saints like, “Anne, Anne, bring me a man as fast as you can!” And on and on it goes, with the audience barely able to catch its breath.  

The second act of Late Night Catechism involves a “Compatibility Game” with two married couples chosen randomly from the audience (they are not shills). Husbands and wives sit back to back, and supply answers to questions posed by Sister by raising hand held placards indicating “Yes” or “No.” The contestants are ignorant of each others answers, and marital agreement results in Sister’s ringing a bell, while disagreement is signaled by a disagreeable sound from a buzzer. The winner is the pair with the most agreements about questions posed, while the game becomes hilarious whether or not marital pairs agree or disagree with each other on questions like, “Which do you prefer, premarital sex or going to heaven?”

Late Night Catechism is good for what ails you, whether you’re downhearted or  downsized. And it’s salubrious, inoffensive fun with an ecumenical outreach. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Atheists and pagans in the audience were laughing as hard as the Catholics—although it’s dollars to donuts the latter outnumber the former at the show.

‘Til Death Do Us Part: Late Night Catechism opened at the Stage II of Long Wharf Theatre on July 8, and runs to August 16, 2009 at Long Wharf Theatre, at 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 203.787.4282 or online at www.longwharf.org.


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