Vows of Mediocrity
Playwrights often complain bitterly about the subjectivity of critics. A.R. Gurney, author of such classics as The Dining Room, has given several lectures around the country in which he rants about the fact that everyone, including professional viewers, comes to the theater with certain preconceptions that make it impossible for them it judge any work fairly. For example, he explains, when you attend a school play and your child is starring in it, you think the production is wonderful no matter how inadequate the performers truly are. Having a headache, a toothache, a messy divorce -- all these things Gurney cites as reasons a reviewer might hate a show whether it's good or not. And, of course, critics bring along their own yoke of prejudices. Some prefer musicals, while others would, if they had their choice and were not paid to attend theater, only patronize serious dramas.
My answer to Gurney is, first of all, that no human being can be totally objective about anything, except perhaps some holy man sitting on a hill in Tibet meditating for 30 years on the sound of one hand clapping. And he doesn't usually come down the hill and go to the theater in order to clap both hands, anyway. Second, a critic tries to put aside his or her own personal predilections and see if the work is the best it can be in that particular form. Quite frankly, I don't love sickly sweet romantic musicals like The Music Man, but if the production is excellent, I readily say so.
In certain ways, I was in a unique state of objectivity when I went to see Nunsense 2 by playwright/director Dan Goggin. Somehow I managed to miss its prequel -- Nunsense -- as well as those films so derivative of Goggin's work: namely, Sister Act and Sister Act 2. Moreover, I am not a lapsed Catholic, nor have I been tormented or otherwise molested by nuns or priests.
Admittedly, I was not totally without bias. I read many poor reviews and I was resentful that the Coconut Grove Playhouse has followed up an ultra-light sitcom play -- Breaking Legs -- with this ultra-light sitcom musical. Worse, singing and dancing nuns are not my idea of great comedy, unless everyone does it in drag, Charles Ludlam-style. Furthermore, that day my dog soiled the rug, I got stuck in three traffic jams, and it was the one-year memorial of my father's death.
There you have it, Mr. Gurney, all my baggage is now exposed. Even so, I was willing to laugh -- if the play merited it.
Now that you know where I stood when I entered the door of the theater, trust that my review is as fair as possible. Nunsense 2 is not as bad as I might have suspected, but this doesn't mean it's consistently entertaining, either. Nunsense had some sort of zany plot about nuns giving food poisoning to other nuns and having to raise money for their convent because of this disastrous event. Like so many sequels, this follow-up doesn't introduce a new plot or new characters; it just strings the same kinds of jokes along. Once in a while, Mr. Goggin comes up with a great skit, but there just isn't two acts' worth of material here and the ultimate result is boredom. About ten percent of the audience fled to their cars at intermission, and there were lots of unamused faces throughout the show I attended.
In this sequel, the four nuns sing and dance, supposedly to impress a talent scout from Star Search; one of the conceits of the play is that he may be sitting in our audience. Also, the sisters squabble about who gets the lion's share of the limelight, and constantly tell each other adolescent sex jokes (such as how David got Goliath in the nuts). That's about it for two hours, and it's just not enough to sustain my interest in a theatrical piece.
Still, there are a lot of fine touches here. In between the stupid double entendres about "getting your rocks off" and similar sophomoric nonsense, some funny material crops up. "Franciscans!" huffs the hefty Mother Superior, named Sister Mary Regina, "you just can't trust people who spend that much time around animals." The best drawn and most comic character -- brain-damaged Sister Mary Paul, a.k.a. Sister Amnesia -- conducts a hilarious interactive game of bingo with the audience and is described by the Mistress of Novices, Sister Mary Hubert, as "a sandwich short of a picnic."
The garish gymnasium set by Barry Axtel is excellently done, providing much visual excitement as well as some perfect playing areas. The choreography by Felton Smith is so good it easily rivals Tommy Tune's best efforts. The direction by Goggins is perfect for the tone of his piece. And the cast conducts themselves professionally, though unevenly.
As the Mother Superior, Kathy Robinson is simply a bore with an Irish accent. Ditto for her sidekick, Sister Mary Hubert as played by Donna M. Ryan. Both are so busy portraying scrotum-busting nuns they forget to build flesh and blood characters and to inject their performances with any authentic energy. In a scene where they both get drunk, their stereotyped movements, along with their vocal slurring and hiccupping, actually become grating. Christine Anderson as Sister Robert Anne, the physical education teacher (a male first name? Is there a lesbian joke here Goggin forgot to write?) projects too much enthusiasm and energy in a part that has no real purpose in the script. She bounces all over the stage with nothing of consequence to say. It's not her fault, but she quickly turns tedious as well.
The two stand-outs are the younger nuns. Kimberly Galberaith is funny, adorable, and charismatic as the ballerina of the convent, Sister Mary Leo, who hopes to combine Swan Lake with the sacraments and perform on the stage with a cross around her neck and a tutu around her hips. But no one steals the stage and show quite like Sarah Knapp as Sister Amnesia. I've rarely seen an actress portray a perky schizoid so well; she's frightening and genuinely humorous at the same time. The only reason I'm thankful I attended was to see Knapp's performance, which frequently made me laugh out loud.
Nunsense 2 isn't the worst of this modern era's formulaic fluff products, but I'd still prefer it if the Playhouse would stop playing it safe and assuming everyone in South Florida is an idiot. This would mean taking a brilliant work, such as the play they now have in the small 100-seat Encore Room -- David Mamet's Oleanna -- and presenting it in the main-stage area, which seats 1100, instead of constantly trying to sell tickets with lukewarm semi-losers like Nunsense 2.
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