Late Nite Catechism” is tougher than “Nunsense,” gentler than “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You” and costs more to see than renting the “Sister Act II” video. All of which begs the question, Why? Why, now that nuns are a truly endangered species, does the mere sight of a wimple send audiences into paroxysms of laughter? By now, there must be more black gabardine habits in Western Costumes than in all of St. Patrick’s. Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan’s one-person show about a nun who teaches a catechism class brings it all back for anyone who still blanches at the words “fallen away.” And that includes the utter tedium of all those wasted Saturday mornings.
As with the religion it so mildly lampoons, “Late Nite Catechism” has longevity on its side. The play opened in 1993 in Chicago, where it is still running, and continues to be performed in cities around the world. How Los Angeles has avoided the Sister until now is a miracle worth a dozen novenas.
Want to have the Holy Trinity explained to you? How about the Immaculate Conception? Then again, who did Cain and Abel marry if they were Adam and Eve’s only children? Sister lets us wrestle with that one over intermission.
Under the direction of Patrick Trettenero, “Late Nite Catechism” is not without its welcome surprises. First off, Sister is played by a woman. No doubt when ticket sales begin to wan in the heartland, someone will be gearing up “Late Nite Catechism: Ah, Men!” But until then, transvestitism is not one of her sins.
Maripat Donovan, truly, is a minor miracle as the classroom despot who, despite her significant girth, probably lives on host wafers alone. In true pre-Vatican II mode, Sister tells us nothing about herself except to say that she’s from the South Side of Chicago. But we know from the overpowering scent of starch to the searchlight roll of those eyes of ice that every guy in her family is a cop, and that includes Sister.
If the words “one-person show” aren’t cautionary enough, how about “audience participation”? Sister bullies you into standing when spoken to and answering her in complete sentences.
This is either hilarious or alarming, depending upon how often you go to the theater. Mass embarrassment has its charms until, rather early in the evening, a few cards in the audience decide that they, too, are stand-up comics on the par of Ms. Donovan.
Suffice it to say, they are not — except for one man who answered the question “What happened to Christ’s robe?” with the retort “Elizabeth Taylor got it.” (Remember the movie “The Robe,” which starred Richard Burton, who used to go with… Well, maybe you had to be there.)
Sometime during the Cain-and-Abel debate, even the nearly divine Ms. Donovan can’t keep one from wondering which fate is worse: another few millennia in purgatory or the second act?
Ultimately, Sister herself is a muddle. She longs for the days of Mass in Latin, but then says women should be priests.
“Late Nite Catechism” also lacks any arc as a piece of entertainment. Back in 1977, Estelle Parsons opened on Broadway in a similarly structured play, “Miss Margarida’s Way” by Roberto Athayde, which featured another authoritarian figure (a seventh grade schoolteacher) who prompted some kind of meditation on the nature of fascism and anarchy.
Sister begins as a benevolent bully and ends up holding a question-and-answer session in which someone asks why the Benedictine order is always getting into trouble with the Pope. Who knew?