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Nunsense II, the Second Coming/The Queen of Bingo




Candlelight Dinner Playhouse

I guess you can't keep a good nun, let alone an entire stagestruck convent, down. The fictitious Little Sisters of Hoboken (or "Little Hobos") first showcased their irrepressible talents in the variety show Nunsense, created by Dan Goggin. The occasion for their wildly successful "benefit" was a gastronomic tragedy: several score of sisters had been offed by a killer vichyssoise cooked by Sister Julia, Child of God; the deceased were lodged in the convent freezer until funds could be raised to bury the "blue nuns" and free up the freezer for food again.

Born of the urgent need for a second hit, Nunsense II, The Second Coming is also billed as a benefit. This time the intent is to thank those who supported the first one.

But never mind the rationale. The Little Hobos themselves are the best excuse for a sequel--they really do burst with skills it would be a sacrilege to suppress. And Candlelight Dinner Playhouse is the logical venue: its Forum Theatre hosted Nunsense's longest local run, from 1987 to 1989.

Goggin hews religiously to Nunsense's successful formula: gentle spoofing of Catholic stereotypes, off-color jokes ("What has balls and makes all the nuns scream?--Bingo!"), a trick bingo game, a pastiche score that combines feel-good anthems, vaudeville novelty numbers, a sing-along, three nun chorus lines, and a gospel finale, plus a comic bit with a gigantic book (The Catholic Guide to Gift Giving succeeds Nunsense's controversial Cooking With the B.V.M.). Then there's the topsy-turvy fun of lines like "Never send a man to do a nun's job," the sisters' parlor game "Pin the Braid on Sinead," and a "Nunsearch" talent hunt open to real nuns with an itch to perform.

As before, the delicious humor is of the fish-out-of-water variety: we watch nuns impersonating cancan cuties, kooch dancers, and in the feminist "Padre Polka," lazy, selfish priests. You can debate for hours why show-biz nuns so delight audiences (including other nuns). I think it's the kick of watching authority figures let down their wimples, kick up a storm, and get tangled up in lines like "Is a bear Catholic? Does the Pope poop in the woods?"

Performing in the gym at Mount Saint Helen's School (where the school's Mikado set is still clumsily in place), the Little Hobos again dutifully obey the infallible Irish terror Sister Mary Regina (Karlah Hamilton), a Mother Superior who can launch just as easily into a kick-ass Elvis imitation as into a tap-dancing turn. At her right hand is the ambitious Sister Mary Hubert (E. Faye Butler), a commanding person who brings down the gym with a clap-happy finale. Completing the crew are Sister Mary Robert Anne (Mary Robin Roth), a brash Brooklynite who does cunning impressions of famous people as nuns; country-singing Sister Mary Amnesia (Lori Hammel), still recovering from the memory loss caused by a collision with a crucifix; Sister Mary Leo (Roberta Duchak), who wants to be the first nun ballerina; and Sister Mary Sebastian (Lisa K. Wyatt), who's taken a vow of silence but can still lip-synch her heart out.

Goggin throws in a silly subplot whose paltry resolution is even more preposterous than the set-up: a rival Franciscan order mean to abduct Mary Amnesia and the prize money she won in Nunsense. But no matter, the sport here is watching six down-to-earth nuns get so badly "bitten by the theatrical flea" (as the Mother Superior misconstrues it) that they get drunk on rice wine, imitate movie queens, perform cartwheels and fan dances, and hawk such schlock gift items as a pasta Madonna, an all-chocolate Last Supper, Ascension Sunday Levitation Kit (with 200 batteries), and the ever-popular Pope on a Rope.

It would be like slapping a lamb to pan this show (and I don't speak out of Catholic guilt). Teri Gibson's brisk direction and sudden, frenzied choreography nicely preserve the amateur-theatrical charm of Goggin's studiously unpretentious enterprise. His solid songs and Candlelight's angelic cast are truly a match made in heaven.


at the Buckingham Room of the Congress Hotel

If there's anything more Catholic than nuns, it's bingo--Nunsense II includes a brief game, and The Queen of Bingo, now in a world premiere at the Congress Hotel, explores the phenomenon at greater length and in surprising depth. Like Shear Madness, The Queen aims for audience participation: before intermission they get to play a real game of bingo, with a ten-pound frozen turkey as a prize.

Gimmickry notwithstanding, The Queen is much quieter than Nunsense or Shear Madness, much less ferociously eager to please. Based on a one-act called Give the Queen a Dollar, by Jeanne Michels and Phyllis Murphy, this 90-minute charmer, set in Saint Joseph's church hall, introduces us to two very real, rather lonely sisters who are crazy about bingo. For them Catholic gambling is a gossipy refuge from life's storms. Seated in the hallway (there's an overflow crowd) and armed with their daubers, good-luck charms (troll dolls), and as many cards as they can afford, they intend to force some luck, or at least risk, into their lives.

Sis (Carmen Decker), the older sibling, is a "good loser" who's sick of the compliment. She plays every day in a different locale--to the chagrin of her children, who think she's spending their inheritance. But it gets her out of the house and allows her to mix with the friends she loves to hate. Babe (Patti Hannon) needs Bingo like a fix; rabidly competitive, she's enraged that a rival has arrived early and taken her lucky seat. Determined to win--it's been a year since she won a $500 jackpot--she uses bingo to forget the husband who walked out on her and the weight problem that makes her loathe herself and all other gravity-challenged people.

The sisters amuse themselves by criticizing the caller for giving out numbers too fast, yelling earthy epithets at other parishioners, and generally getting on each other's nerves: to improve her efficiency, Sis compulsively covers the free spaces on her card with markers. They also trade delightful insider bingo lore, like Babe's conviction that gambling is only a sin for Protestants and Sis's tale of a legendary bingo player who could read a book while minding 50 cards (she took the secret to her grave).

Deepening the small talk are Queen's often moving monologues, in which Sis and Babe confess the secret sorrows that bingo helps them forget. They're the last things you'd expect from plays like Shear Madness or Nunsense, but they do warm this play considerably. They also fuel two lively, natural, and winning performances. As Sis, Decker mixes Chicago spunk and sassiness with a growing concern for Babe's unhinged behavior. Hannon--an actress who can make everything around her feel real as heartbreak--perfectly conveys Babe's miseries and redemptive hopefulness. Patrick Carton is the parish priest who blesses the gambling and mans the concession stand, merrily working the crowd.

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