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Review: 'Late Nite Catechism 3' at Laguna Playhouse

April 7, 2009 |  3:30 pm

Late Nite Catechism 3 - photo 2 Confession: Until very recently, I was a “Late Night Catechism” virgin.

I guess I was waiting for the right sequel to come my way. Over the weekend — and without the excuse of liquor, I hasten to add — I succumbed to “ 'Til Death Do Us Part: Late Night Catechism 3.” And though I chuckled a fair amount in the show’s first half (believe it or not, this loosey-goosey cabaret comedy has two acts), in the cool glare of the weekday morning sun, I couldn’t help feeling guilty and impure.

How to account for my fall from artistic grace? Well, it would be easy to say my editor made me do it, but blame must be apportioned to the Laguna Playhouse, where the show is having its world premiere. Such a lovely theater, located just a stone's throw from the romantic coastline, could get anyone in the mood for a little mindless stage hanky-panky.

On opening night, Sister was played by Maripat Donovan, the original “Late Night Catechism” star and co-author, who lets Mary Beth Burns and Nonie Newton-Breen sub for her one or two performances a week. Charging down the aisle like a walrus in a penguin get-up, she admonishes the audience to “settle down” as she takes her place at the helm of a makeshift elementary-school classroom.  With her blue-collar bark and unstoppable rolling-boulder physique, I could feel myself becoming instantly tipsy from her hectoring hilarity.
The subject of Sister’s lesson is marriage, a sacrament she handily pairs with the blessing of the sick (formerly known as last rites). The thinking here is that marriage vows span earthly life. Death essentially annuls them, which may be an act of charity when you consider an alternative in which not even murder could sunder you from your other half. So apparently Catholics get married, have kids, become grandparents, retire and then drop dead — blessedly single again.
Sister’s pedagogical mode is Socratic, meaning she blindsides members of the audience with questions, most of them bearing on the nature of their intimate relationships. There’s much levity in watching mature, well-dressed Orange County theatergoers be reduced to stammering third-graders under her reprimanding scrutiny. Unfortunately the script, which Donovan wrote with Marc Silvia, the show’s director, is really nothing more than a wing and a prayer for Sister to glide on. Donovan is pretty swift in the ad-lib department, but an hour is a lot of time for this kind of interactive lollygagging.
The second act centers on "The Compatibility Game," which Sister describes as a cross between “Match Game” and “The Newlywed Game.” Basically, she yanks two couples from the audience, asks them questions about their preferences, and the team with the most right answers wins. This sort of participatory hokeypokey might play well at fundraisers (for which Donovan, clearly entrepreneurial, pitched her services at the end of the evening), but as theater it left the impression of a warm-up for an act that never materialized.

Donovan doesn’t possess the incisor-sharp verbal wit of Barry Humphries (a.k.a. Dame Edna), though she shares the same ambition to create a money-raking conglomerate out of an outrageous persona. Trouble is, as outrage goes, Donovan plays it way too safe. Her mockery of the church (there’s a running gag about the pope’s astronomer confirming that space aliens are indeed creatures of God) might be heretical for Vatican Council, but most of these quips would leave them unabashedly tittering at an Easter lunch in the rectory.
Since much of the show changes night to night, perhaps Sister will eventually get to hold forth on the issue of same-sex marriage, which curiously came up only once in a tangential joke about priests getting married. One would expect this brand of comic catechism to satirize, not steer away from, controversy. 

Maybe that’s why the fleeting pleasures of “ ’Till Death Do Us Part” left me feeling a bit cheapened at the end. Does that count as a venial sin? I’ll say an Act of Contrition just in case.
-- Charles McNulty

" ‘Til Death Do Us Part: Late Nite Catechism 3." Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 3
Price: $35 - $70;  (949) 497-2787.Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: Maripat Donovan as Sister. Credit: Ed Krieger