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Kicking the habit

Though thin on plot, Nunsense has a few laughs

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What do you call a sleepwalking nun? A roamin’ Catholic! Yuck yuck yuck.

Although that old favorite is not in Nunsense, it is pretty typical of the jokes that are. Combine them with your typical nun-does-the-unexpected humor (nun dances, nun wears feather boa, nun tells dirty joke, etc.) and you have the ingredients of Nunsense. Funny stuff for a while, but to sustain a full-length musical one looks to something more: like a story or well-drawn characters. Unfortunately Nunsense, one of the most inexplicably popular musicals in recent memory, doesn’t deliver either. The spirited cast members in the MCT Community Theatre’s production give it their all and provide plenty of humorous moments, but it is hard to rise above such uninspired source material.

Nunsense is structured like a revue, or more accurately, like a free-form, doddering revue-within-a-revue. The nominal plot goes like this: an order of Hoboken, N.J. nuns has been decimated when their cook serves up a batch of botulism-laced soup, sending 52 sisters to sing with the choir eternal. A handful of survivors—who were fortunate to have been playing bingo when the soup struck—are left to carry on. First, though, they have to bury their deceased colleagues. They raise enough money to bury 48 of them, but mother superior has squandered the rest of the cash on a new VCR for the convent. The remaining four dead nuns are unceremoniously stored in the freezer.

Morbid enough for you?

To raise enough money to give the frozen sisters proper burials, the surviving nuns put on a variety show. Nunsense is the account of their on-stage antics as they stumble through it. The plot is revisited a couple of times very briefly, but it’s never played up as anything other than a flimsy thread for the songs and the jokes.

What I found most perplexing about Nunsense is just who its intended audience is. It seems to be playing on the nostalgia of people with a Catholic school upbringing, and yet there’s no sense of underlying warmth or appreciation for the setting. The ultimate failing of Nunsense is that there is really no reason it has to be about nuns at all. It seems completely random, like the show could work just as well with any stereotypically stodgy group of people at the forefront. Substitute military jokes for religious jokes and it could be about drill sergeants. Throw in some lawyer gags and it could be about judges (the habit humor could easily be about robes).

Disjointed and meandering, Nunsense is a play in which scenes do not build on one another, and neither plot nor characters are advanced at all. Each of the five nuns gets at least one solo number about their past, but strangely, all of their backgrounds are cast from the exact same mold. They all wanted to be performers and they all wanted to be stars and they all somehow ended up as nuns. Having a nun look back on her past and on different paths her life might have taken could be a great vehicle for some introspection and insight on faith and experience. Even if it were just a device for another wacky song, though, at least the author could have come up with a different story for each of them.

But anyway, grouch grouch grouch. Hey, people seem to really like this play. When Nunsense first opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York in 1985, it became the third longest running Off Broadway show in history. There is a nunsense.com homepage where you can buy theme baseball caps, notepads, videotapes, Christmas ornaments, cookbooks, habits, and glow-in-the-dark rosaries. The production even spawned a sequel, although Nunsense II did not fare as well as the original.

A good contrast to Nunsense is Greater Tuna, which played at MCT several months ago. Greater Tuna, a play about an eccentric rural Texas town, is a pretty superficial comedy. There are no pretensions of profundity or any underlying serious themes. Like Nunsense, it is a free-form collection of vignettes. Unlike Nunsense, however, Greater Tuna holds together quite well and the humor is advanced through storylines that develop and unique, well-formed characters.

All of that said, it’s hard not to enjoy any MCT production, because there is so much spirit and everyone onstage and off is clearly having such a good time. Veteran Sentinel High School Theatre Director Margaret F. Johnson (the school’s theater was just named after her) holds the show together with a witty performance as Sister Mary Regina, the mother superior. Johnson perfectly portrays the character’s vacillation between disciplinarian and repressed mischief maker, even with the briefest reproving shake of her finger. She gives us a glimpse of what the show could be if it were better written.

Victoria Larsen is solid as the strict but tolerant Sister Mary Hubert, mother superior’s right hand woman. She is a reliably dignified presence in a cauldron of wackiness. Amethyst Hertsens, who plays the young Sister Mary Leo, is hilarious in her “Dying Nun” ballet number. As the rebellious Brooklynite, Sister Robert Anne, Renee Kloser gets to do impressions, slip Sister Mary Regina hallucinogens, and perform a couple of solo numbers. She is particularly strong in “Playing Second Fiddle,” a song that requires skillful comic speed-singing.

Perhaps the best part is an audience participation section near the beginning of the show. Melanie Charlson, playing Sister Mary Amnesia, a nun who can’t remember her past but has an affinity for country music, descends into the crowd to test people on what the previous song was about. It’s a lot of fun and Charlson does a nice job of bantering with people and firing off witty comebacks. Her character is wacky and gentle, but the way she wields that ruler carries just enough menace.

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