Nuns are funny. They must be, or why would so many playwrights type so many comedies about goofy brides of Christ in black-and-white get-ups? This week there are two funny-nun shows going on: Hail Mary!, a new Tom Dudzick comedy at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre; and at Artisan Center Theater in Hurst, Dan Goggin's Nunsense, a reliable audience-pleaser for small theaters looking for a cheap revue that takes cheap shots at the Catholic Church.
(Considering Theatre Arlington's current production of The House of Blue Leaves, which features three comical nuns-on-the-run, the arrival of the national touring company of Fiddler on the Roof, at Fair Park Music Hall through May 24, suddenly feels like ecclesiastical equal time.)
Nunsense is nonsensical musical frippery in full, old-timey habits (we'll get to that). Hail Mary! is a straight contemporary play with a real story to tell, even if it does sound as if it were plucked from a 1940s Irene Dunne film. Dudzick, known as "the Catholic Neil Simon," has written what is best categorized as a "gentle comedy" about catechism. Serious sermonizing slows the top of the second act, but otherwise the good actors and capable direction by Harry Parker keep Circle Theatre's version from committing the venial sin of boring the audience. Hail Mary! is basically a pleasant piece about nice people trying to do the right things. And on top of the three funny sisters, there's also a funny priest. Not literally, of course.
If it did have some smoochy coochy-coo scenes, the plot of Hail Mary! would be absolutely Lifetime movie-worthy. Smart young novice Mary Wytkowski (Lynn Blackburn) teaches third grade in St. Aloysius School in a working-class burg in upstate New York. She's in trouble with the stern Mother Superior, Sister Regina (Lois Sonnier Hart), who objects to radical ideas Miss Mary is passing onto the kids. Among them, that God has no gender and no human form. "He's in the leaves! He's in these Post-It Notes! He's in everything!" Mary says, giddy with the existence of a Supreme Being in her school supplies.
Mary also tells the children they can't hurt God's feelings, which Sister Regina regards as a threat to centuries of successful Catholic guilt-infusion. The big Sis puts the novice on notice. If Miss Mary doesn't straighten up and stop teaching that God is just a big shapeless blob of love and that the pope is fallible because he's only a guy in a dress, she's out.
In comes the possible love interest, Joseph (swarthy-adorable Joel McDonald), an old beau of Mary's from high school who just happens to be a young widower and the father of one of Mary's students. He strides into parent-teacher night and, not realizing Mary's engaged to marry God's son, falls in love all over again. By the next day he's on his knees, proposing. And Mary's on hers, praying to Jesus' mom for a way out of this meshuge mess.
Dudzick gives his main characters amusing sidekicks. Mary's is Sister Felicia (Monica Rivera), the Puerto Rican gym teacher who's already earned full stripes as a full-time nun. She wears a black veil but not the head-to-ankle garb and has little purpose in the play but to react to Mary's lines by rolling her eyes and saying "Ayi, dios mio." Sister Regina's compadre is elderly Father Stanley (Alan Shorter), who rises from his death bed to tell Mary he can see her aura (he draws it on the blackboard) and that she's the "chosen one" to lead young Catholics out of the wilderness of religious fundamentalism.
"Novice with new ideas" is a device that's been used plenty, from The Sound of Music to The Flying Nun to Doubt. The cuter the nun, the better it works. Hail Mary! benefits from the rosy glow and quick comic timing of Dallas actress Lynn Blackburn in the title role. She somehow gets Dudzick's dudzo exposition to bubble out naturally. ("The church used to condone male couples marrying during the Renaissance. It's there! I Googled it!") And her weak-kneed giddiness at seeing handsome Joe again sets up the will-she-or-won't-she tension.
Yes, it's Mary and Joseph in love. And Dudzick, missing no chance to reach for the obvious, makes him a carpenter. A funny carpenter. "If Jesus had had my power tools, think what he might have done," Joe says.
As Sister Regina, the villain of the piece, Hart is just right as the coldhearted defender of dogma, so stuck in the past she doesn't even realize the pope canceled the scary detour from heaven called "limbo." Hart's small body quivers in anger as she tries to force Mary to toe the line. When the actress shouts at the younger nuns, the effect is as punishing as the whack of a ruler on knuckles.
Alan Shorter, playing Father Stanley, is the one who strays from the fold performance-wise. The character is written as Polish, but Shorter's accent veers toward Irish and not convincingly either. He's also made his dying priest a slow-talker. Some of his speeches, like windy homilies from the pulpit, go into double overtime.
Ayi, dios mio.
Nunsense makes no sense at all, but that doesn't mean it can't be silly fun. The show finds the five Little Sisters of Hoboken, led by yet another Sister Regina, putting on a benefit musical to raise money. Why they need the funds is the big joke. Or one of them anyway. In two hours, Nunsense delivers a nonstop nunzapalooza of clichés, double entendres and puns about Catholicism. The chef is "Sister Julia, child of God." Her recipe for "Boy Scout Treats" begins "Get 10 Brownies really hot."
Calling this stuff "low-brow" would be too lofty a compliment. And the production at Artisan Center Theater—replete with canned music, off-key singing, egregious mugging and ragged kick-lines—adds injury to insult by watering down or editing out the risqué bits. At this all-volunteer community theater located in a down-at-heel shopping center, everything's strictly child-friendly. (A policy of no bad words, violence or sexual content should pose interesting challenges for their West Side Story in July.)
This theater plays to a particular audience in a particular way. They do 10 productions a year, each running a month. Every role is double-cast. One ensemble does Monday, Friday and Saturday matinee performances; the other does Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights. They go dark Sundays or Wednesdays (church nights).
Tickets are $12. Popcorn and soda are consumed noisily by patrons during the show. And everyone takes a casual approach to etiquette (or so we observed at the performance reviewed), coming and going willy-nilly while the performance is in progress. At intermission, there's a raffle, where the prizes include 2009 calendars.
But the regulars pack the place. Opening night was a sell-out, as is every other performance for the run of Nunsense. The crowd laughed their heads off and gave the five actresses a standing O. You can argue with that, but why bother?
It's good to check out the amateur stuff now and again. But as long as there are better shows at professional theaters, don't think you have to make it, you know, that thing nuns wear.