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.