×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sister Mary Explains It All

Satire tends to date quickly, but Christopher Durang's 1980 black comedy criticizing Catholic rigidity, "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You," still has some bite to it, which says a lot about the writer's incisive wit.

With:
Sister Mary - Diane Keaton Gary Sullivan - Brian Benben Aloysius Benheim - Wallace Langham Angela DiMarco - Laura San Giacomo Philomena Rostovich - Jennifer Tilly Thomas - Max Morrow Skeptical Husband - Martin Mull

Satire tends to date quickly, but Christopher Durang’s 1980 black comedy criticizing Catholic rigidity, “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,” still has some bite to it, which says a lot about the writer’s incisive wit. Yet that bite comes across too stridently in this Showtime adaptation of the play (whose title has been truncated). Under Marshall Brickman’s direction, the comic beginnings come off too broad and the more earnest elements too sentimental. These are really symptoms of a more fundamental problem: This is a genuinely theatrical piece, and presented realistically it simply doesn’t work in the same way.

Story involves the title character (Diane Keaton) delivering her Christmas lecture on the ways of the world, a ritual she’s performed for more than 25 years. A firm believer in the strict teachings of the church, Sister Mary has made her views on heaven, hell, purgatory and mortal sin known to several generations of pupils at this church school. This year, she’s visited by a foursome of former students, who, in performing the Nativity scene as they did years ago, confront Sister Mary with their sinful lives.

Durang and Brickman open up the piece by showing the four students when they were children in 1959. The film then jumps forward 25 years to show us these cherub-faced disciples of Sister Mary as adults who have clearly, shall we say, lapsed. They’re played by the solid team of Laura San Giacomo, Brian Benben, Jennifer Tilly and Wallace Langham. As they start to reveal to Sister Mary how their lives have deviated from her teachings, the nun proves to be as inflexible as ever. Her reactions caused controversy when the play premiered, and the material undoubtedly still would give the Catholic League fits. Showtime, of course, would invite the publicity of loud condemnation.

A versatile comic performer who can capture multiple levels of a character, Keaton seems at first glance a fine choice for Sister Mary. But she’s a bit too restrained here. Keaton’s a physical actress who uses her full body to define a character, but here, wrapped in a nun’s habit, and often photographed in close-up, she’s forced to act almost solely with her face, which turns out to be not especially expressive or subtle. What’s missing most of all is the sincerity of the character’s deep beliefs. One can imagine an older actress with a less antsy bearing — Maggie Smith, for example — pulling this off to greater effect.

But the biggest problem is that the film simply can’t re-create the theatricality of Durang’s initial work. Since the original piece was structured as a lecture, the audience was included in the theatrical space and addressed directly by Sister Mary — she was, in effect, explaining it all “for you.” In this adaptation, we see the audience, some of whom are sketched out in the broadest possible character strokes. Even though the audience members, like the under-used Martin Mull as an unbeliever forced to attend by his wife, provide a moment or two of humor, their reactions are obvious at the beginning, and then as things go awry, Durang and Brickman seem perplexed about what to do with the audience at all. The satire itself feels cold and distant as a result, and the playing too realistic instead of properly stylized.

Perhaps this dilemma could have been resolved by having Sister Mary deliver her lecture as a television production addressed directly to her unseen audience. That would have been more faithful to the original.

Sister Mary Explains It All

Showtime; Sun. May 27, 8 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Toronto by Tennant/Stambler Prods. in association with Columbia TriStar Television. Executive producers, Kirk Stambler, Victoria Tennant; co-executive producers, Charles Barrington Lewis, Brian Woods; producer, Ron Bozman; director, Marshall Brickman; writer, Christopher Durang, based on his play "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You."

Crew: Camera, Anthony B. Richmond; production designer, Ian Brock; costumes, Suzette Daigle; editor, Kristina Boden; music, Philippe Sarde; casting, Laura Rosenthal, Stephanie Gorin. 76 MINS.

Cast: Sister Mary - Diane Keaton Gary Sullivan - Brian Benben Aloysius Benheim - Wallace Langham Angela DiMarco - Laura San Giacomo Philomena Rostovich - Jennifer Tilly Thomas - Max Morrow Skeptical Husband - Martin MullWith: Victoria Tennant, Joanne Boland, Jon Davey, Joan Gregson, Linda Kash, B.J. Woodbury, Jocelyn Zucco, Rebecca Brenner, Spencer Van Wyck, Michael Cameron, Chloe Randle Reis, Steven Taylor, Iaislinn Paul, Larry Mannell, Deborah Tennant, Hunter Scott, Dana Fernald, Edie Inksetter, Mari Trainor, Colleen Williams, Glen McDonald, Mark Allan, Paul MacFarlane, Gary Pearson, Ken Gorin, Hazel Gorin, Kirk Stambler.

More TV

  • LAST MAN STANDING: 150'th Episode: L-R:

    'Last Man Standing' Renewed at Fox

    “Last Man Standing” has been renewed at Fox, Variety has learned. This is the second season of the family multicamera comedy that will air on Fox, but the eighth season overall. (Its first six years were on ABC before the Alphabet canceled the series. Fox picked it up a year later.) “‘Last Man Standing’ roared [...]

  • Lauren Corrao

    Freeform Taps Lauren Corrao to Replace Karey Burke as Original Programming Head

    Lauren Corrao has been named executive vice president of original programming and development for Freeform. Corrao takes over the role from Karey Burke, who was named the head of ABC Entertainment in November following the departure of Channing Dungey. Corrao will report directly to Freeform president Tom Ascheim. In her new position, Corrao will oversee [...]

  • Allison Mack Sex Cult

    HBO in Production on NXIVM Sex Cult Documentary Series

    HBO Documentary Films is currently in production on a documentary series exploring the NXIVM sex cult case, which implicated former “Smallville” actress Allison Mack among others. The series, which is to be directed by “The Square” and “Control Room” helmers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, will follow a range of people who joined the NXIVM [...]

  • Barry Killing Eve Pose

    'Barry,' 'Killing Eve,' 'Pose' Among 2019 Peabody Winners (EXCLUSIVE)

    “The Americans,” “Barry,” “The End of the F***ing World,” “The Good Place,” “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette,” “Killing Eve,” “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” “Pose” and “Random Acts of Flyness” have been named the entertainment winners at this year’s Peabody Awards, Variety has learned exclusively. Additionally, “Sesame Street” has been named the winner of the Institutional Award [...]

  • Les Miserables BBC

    BBC's 'Les Miserables' Recreates the Dark World of Victor Hugo's Novel

    Director Tom Shankland didn’t want his “Les Miserables” to be anything like the stage-musical version of Victor Hugo’s sweeping historical novel, nor like the 2012 Tom Hooper feature-film musical.  For the BBC limited series — a drama starring Olivia Colman, Lily Collins, David Oyelowo and Dominic West, which aired the first of its six episodes in [...]

  • PBS, Walter Presents Air Belgian Crime

    PBS, Walter Presents to Air Belgian Crime Drama 'Professor T' Nationwide (EXCLUSIVE)

    PBS Distribution and Walter Presents are set to bring Belgian crime drama “Professor T” to audiences across the U.S. “Professor T” will be the second international title distributed under the Walter’s Choice banner, the partnership between PBS Distribution, the home video arm of PBS, and streaming service Walter Presents, which brings non-English language drama to [...]

  • Wendy Williams' Husband Kevin Hunter Will

    Kevin Hunter Out as Executive Producer on 'The Wendy Williams Show'

    Kevin Hunter is out as an executive producer of “The Wendy Williams Show” on the heels of Williams’ announcement that she plans to file for divorce from her husband of 22 years. “Kevin Hunter is no longer an executive producer on ‘The Wendy Williams Show,’ ” said a spokesperson for the daytime talk show, produced [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content