Christopher Durang’s reputation as a writer of “outrageous and often absurd comedy” comes across with the two one-act plays currently running at the Morgan-Wixson. They are respectively a “satire” and a “spoof,” both rather silly and not as outrageous as they may once have been.
The satire, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, has become a classic for its needling of Catholic dogma. Sister Mary (Joanna Churgin) lectures the audience on the principles of Catholic faith, assisted by the uber-obedient Thomas (Brighid Fleming). She defines the differences between Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Limbo, between “venial sin” and “mortal sin,” and offers explanations for the obvious inconstancies in dogma. Reading questions from the audience (apparently real questions submitted before the show), she provides such answers as “Yes, all our prayers are answered. It’s just that sometimes the answer is NO.”
Sister Mary is visited by some former students, who present an amusing and ridiculous Nativity pageant and then, in their regular clothes, submit to Sister Mary’s interrogations about their lives and faith. Here the laughter subsides as Sister Mary learns that her teachings on celibacy and contrition have had no lasting effect except to make her students’ lives miserable.
Joanna Churgin, who plays the title character, takes the show and makes it hers. It’s hard to play that perfect believable nun – the one who you hate but enjoy all in the same breath. She told the Mirror that her favorite moment(s) in Sister…. is when she works one on one with Thomas. “It feels as if Sister Ignatius saves the children from themselves. Sister Ignatius genuinely loves Thomas.” Churgin also meets the challenge of being on stage at all times, often alone, and having to play out an overly obvious and melodramatic resolution.
Sam Bianchini, as the most maligned of the former students, does well with an impassioned monologue about her regrettable life. Fleming’s Thomas is actually the most controlled performance, no surprise as the program reveals her to be possibly the most seasoned actor in a cast of mixed professionals and beginners.
The Actor’s Nightmare is the spoof and it’s just plain fun. It’s a common nightmare to find oneself acting in a play without knowing the lines. In this case, George Spelvin (Johnny Arena, wonderfully nerdy), an accountant by profession, finds himself pressed into service to replace an injured lead actor in a play that is about to begin. More confusingly, the play keeps changing from Noel Coward’s Private Lives to Hamlet, to Samuel Beckett’s Endgame to A Man for All Seasons.
“I don’t know this play,” complains Spelvin as he tries to ad-lib his way through a series of sets, costumes, and situations that sometimes make no sense at all.
Without the lapse into seriousness that causes Sister Mary to end on a sour note, Nightmare maintains its wacky tone throughout. There’s something enjoyably cartoon-like about bits such as George finding himself in a trash bin (the Beckett play) with the daffy Kat Primeau popping up to recite non sequiturs followed by stage directions that don’t help George one whit.
“The parallel stories even within The Actor’s Nightmare are amazing…. The difference in the characters from the beginning to the end tells a story within itself,” Primeau told the Mirror.
Director Jeremy Aluma is no stranger to Los Angeles theatre, having co-founded the Alive Theatre in Long Beach. These two Durang comedies are his debut at the Morgan-Wixson. “It excites me to produce such bold theatre,” he said. “It helps show there is so much more out there than the status-quo of theatre.”
It’s an evening of diverting comedy that won’t make one think too hard, not spectacular, but good for many laughs.
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and The Actor’s Nightmare, through May 29th 8pm Fridays & Saturdays, 2pm Sundays, Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd., 310.828.7519.
Lynne Bronstein and Kenne Guillory
Mirror Contributing Writerslynne@smmirror.com