One of the more self-serving myths in show business is that everybody dreams of becoming a star, that given their druthers, most Americans would quit their dreary jobs in an instant for the chance to appear on TV, or in the movies, or under the hot lights on the Great White Way. This attitude--which has powered the plots of countless plays, movies, and sitcoms (including nearly a quarter of all I Love Lucy episodes)--permeates Nunsense. That's a shame, because in our fame-driven, celebrity-crazed era it would have been refreshing to see a show about members of a religious community who yearned for something a bit more spiritual than the chance to strut their stuff.
Instead, we get Sister Mary Leo, who dreams of becoming a world-famous ballerina/nun, and Sister Robert Anne, who must endure the humiliation of playing second fiddle as the understudy for the convent talent show when, God knows, she has always wanted to be a star. But of course Dan Goggin didn't write Nunsense to make a statement about Catholicism or human nature or the way we live now. He wrote it to (1) make a pile of money and (2) entertain the most people with the least possibility of offending a single touchy soul. And it shows. Nunsense makes all the previous convent-based comedies (The Trouble With Angels, The Flying Nun) look like searing critiques of the Catholic church.
Certainly Goggin is no Christopher Durang, and Nunsense is no Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. At no point in this hopelessly silly, shallow, cloyingly entertaining pastiche of puns, nun jokes, and song parodies does Goggin dare explore any of the less attractive aspects of the Catholic church: its bureaucratic inflexibility, its unmistakable patriarchy, its insistence on living life as if the Counter-Reformation ended last year.
In fact, as he made clear in a 1986 People magazine interview, Goggin seems quite pleased with his willful know-nothingism: "There are limits. I'd never be disrespectful to the habit. I've heard real nuns swear, but I'd never put that in the play. I don't allow them to smoke or drink or sit there and pull their robes above their knees seductively. Real nuns wouldn't do that." Instead we get six singing, dancing, joke-cracking nuns who seem to know all the hackneyed rituals of prewar musical theater--the time steps, the kick lines, the plot turns based on the unexamined yearnings for Broadway stardom--better than the Lord's Prayer or the Apostles' Creed.
Mind you, the charm of nun jokes has always eluded me. Maybe it's because I never went to parochial school and so never developed that rich ambivalence about nuns that typifies so many former inmates, uh, students of Catholic schools. Or maybe it's because, as a second-generation secular humanist (my parents were lapsed Catholics) I couldn't feel more alienated from the traditions, rituals, and superstitions of my grandparents' religion than if I'd been raised Buddhist. Or Lutheran.
Whatever the reason, I don't find nun jokes all that funny, especially the kind of ultrasafe nun jokes (nuns rolling down hills, being confused with penguins, or flying around San Juan, Puerto Rico, under their own power) that made even my conservative, never - miss - a - day - of - holy - obligation Catholic cousins roar with laughter. And I've never been the sort to find just the sight of nuns in full habits immediately funny.
I don't mean to imply that Nunsense isn't funny or entertaining. It is both, actually. And for a show with as many bad jokes and puns ("Saint Francis was a sissy," "Nunsense is habit forming") as this one, it has a high good-joke to bad-joke ratio. In one of the more interesting extended bits, Sister Mary Amnesia goes out into the audience and quizzes people about the show up to that point, handing out "magnetic Saint Christopher dashboard things" to those who get the answers right.
Furthermore, though most of Goggin's serviceable, derivative songs are quite forgettable, a few stand out, including a red-hot jazz number ("Turn Up the Spotlight") and a gospel tune at the end of the show ("Holier Than Thou") that is without exaggeration the best parody of the genre I've ever heard: "I'm holier than thou / I've got the spirit now / I thank God almighty / I'm holier than thou."
Goggin can thank the six actresses who make up the Chicago company for bringing a level of energy, playfulness, and coherence to an essentially structureless, lightweight comedy. In the hands of a less capable cast, this might have been a dreadful show indeed. E. Faye Butler and Melinda MacDonald in particular show considerable charm, winning laughs with the simplest gestures. (Butler has perfected the art of getting a laugh by simply rolling her eyes heavenward at the right moment.) Georgia Engel (to my surprise) proves she has much more going for her as a performer than the fact that she was a regular on a TV show nearly 20 years ago, even if her voice is so tiny that she needs a body mike and she tries to get much more mileage than she should out of a trademark squeaky voice and sweet, blank look.
Still, the best performances in the world can't make up for disappointing material. In taking on a subject as rich for satirizing as the Catholic church, Goggin consistently chose the easiest, most traveled routes. The less traveled path of satire is fraught with peril, as Christopher Durang's own less-than- financially-rewarding and controversy-filled career has shown. But it would have been nice to see a show that dared to ask a deeper question than "When will I get a chance to become the star of the Sisters of Hoboken fund-raiser?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.