There sure are a lot of lapsed Catholics out there.
God bless them, and while you’re at it, everyone else, too.
Thus begins the hilarious ride that is “Late Night Catechism,” the Vegas-themed “Sister Rolls The Dice!” iteration now playing at the 710 Main Theatre.
(The show was originally scheduled to run at the Smith Theatre, until a basement fire there earlier this week relocated performances to 710 Main. Performances are scheduled to reconvene at the Smith after this weekend.)
The one-woman show is one of a dozen or more franchises of the New York City-based Entertainment Services. If you’ve seen shows offered by Shea’s at the Smith Theatre, or in other cabaretlike stages around town, you’ve seen one of its properties. “Tony N Tina’s Wedding,” “Defending the Caveman,” “Menopause The Musical,” to name but a few, are cut from the same cloth: light PG-rated comedy, riddled with socio-ethnic humor and a hint of audience participation.
Nonie Newton-Breen plays Sister in this version, one of seven in the “Late Night Catechism” brand that also includes versions riffing on Christmas, Easter, marriage and now, Sin City. This edition sets Sister in her classroom, where she imparts her brand of Catholic education. This includes the basic rundown of church tenets, but as told through a decidedly informal perspective.
Which means she cuts to the chase, and hilariously.
Her lessons on magic and luck bring up Kim Kardashian. Her twist on now-retired Pope Benedict ropes in a few egg jokes. And her take on Methodists? Don’t get her started.
That divisiveness is the heart of the show’s humor: If you call yourself Catholic, why aren’t you a better one? And if you’re not a Catholic, well, what’s wrong with you?
For this audience member – who you can tell by the above byline is not Catholic – a fair-enough shakedown was in order. The Catholic guilt trip is well understood by its own parishioners, as well as by other religions’ constituencies. (The joke about Catholic shame and Jewish guilt comes to mind.)
It’s all in good fun, and not remotely offensive. Yet that didn’t stop this audience of presumably many Catholics to cower in shame at Sister’s routine verbal attacks on them. This is the audience participation that’s involuntary, beautifully crafted by Newton-Breen’s spot-on candor and playwright Maripat Donovan and Marc Silvia’s ferocious wit. Everyone’s a target.
Lessons be learned now, or forever hold your peace: Don’t chew gum, don’t play with your cellphone, don’t speak out of turn, and don’t get between Him and his Sister. All but the last are standard theatergoing etiquette, but don’t push it with this divine usher. She’ll call you out and have no guilt about it.
This element is what’s driven the franchise to great success, and it’s no wonder. The truth of the matter is, it doesn’t matter to what degree of devotion you practice, if you practice: There’s an innate desire in us all to please a nun. Take “Sister Act,” the musical version of which just played Shea’s to a similarly rapturous house. Not all nuns are comedians like our straight-talking Sister here, or Whoopi Goldberg’s fabulous Sister Mary Clarence. But neither are all of them untouchable statues – and neither are we lay people one side of the coin or the other. We’re all saints, and we’re all sinners. That, right there, is this show’s jackpot.
Newton-Breen rides the wave between these extremes beautifully. She is coarse without being aggressive, lighthearted without being disobedient. She plays Sister with a down-to-earth immodesty that allows those (of us) unfamiliar with the convent’s boundaries to learn a few things along the way. Her Sister is well aware of how non-nuns live. She’s walked a casino floor. She owns a tank top. She knows who Snooki is. She knows that those don’t disqualify her religious beliefs – and she’s a nun!
One of Thursday night’s audience volunteers gave Newton-Breen perhaps her best possible example. A young Canisius College graduate – named Mary, of all names – admitted to the room that though baptized, she had lapsed out of Catholicism and into agnosticism. Sister pegged her “Mary the Pagan,” and set a Mary Magdalene statue on the stage to stare at her all night. Every time another audience member would be found sinning with their gum or breath mint wrapper, front-row Mary would get a renewed glare from statue Mary, followed by a dose of toe-tapping, understanding love from Sister.
It was too perfect a configuration for it to not smell of a setup. Or maybe, its example was too perfect for this brilliantly effective show and its perfectly trained star to ignore. Either way, we all have some homework to do.