Now in its fourth year in Chicago, the ecclesiastical comedy Late Nite Catechism opened in New York Oct. 3, featuring the play's original star and co-writer, Maripat Donovan.
In his Daily News review (Oct. 4), Howard Kissel said that Late Nite Catechism "amused me greatly. The written material is funny, as when Sister explains that if you have stigmata, `you can forget about A&D ointment.' ...Even when the material is not first-rate, [Maripat] Donovan is so winning you're with her all the way."
Jonathan Mandell, in his Newsday review, wrote, "Maripat Donovan, the solid, ruddy-faced find who is both co-author and star, offers a funny, sometimes sharply satiric, but always affectionate look at an old-fashioned religion. Thought it can be viewed as an entertaining mix of monologue, stand-up, improv and Oprah, this interactive comedy comes as close as is theatrically possible to a real catechism class."
As they've done with the play's other engagements, the producers are using a real church as the venue, St. Luke's on West 46th Street. Patrick Trettener will direct the show, which opened at Chicago's Live Bait Theatre May 1993.
"We wrote the show in three and a half weeks," remembers Donovan in a phone conversation the morning after her first invited dress rehearsal. "I was at a dinner party and was telling the story of Saint Maria Goretti. Everyone was laughing, and someone suggested I should do something with it. I happen to be friends with Catherine Evans, who was the managing director of Live Bait [before she moved to Los Angeles two years ago]. I asked her if there were any late night slots available because I had an idea for a show about the lives of the saints." That idea quickly grew into Late Nite Catechism, then subtitled "Saints, Sinners And Ejaculations." "Ejaculations have a different meaning in Catholicism... still, once the show started going towards a commercial run, we figured people would get the wrong idea, so we dropped that part."
Instantly popular, Catechism moved from Live Bait's late night slot to a prime time hour. When the theatre's new season was ready to begin, Donovan took her show to the Organic Greenhouse. From there it went to Zebra Crossing and then back to Live Bait for awhile. Now it's at the Ivanhoe, merrily running with new star, Patty Hannon.
"I've seen Patty," affirms Donovan, "and I could watch her every night. I've seen all the Sisters because I've got approval right on casting." Donovan has even caught the show in Melbourne, where it will have run for over a year when it closes on Jan. 1, 1997. "That's unheard of in Melbourne," Donovan points out. "A hit in Melbourne runs for six weeks." Sally Ann Upton, the lead there, will then move with the show to Sydney after the New Year. The current Boston production stars Chicago veteran, Lisa Buscani.
Asked if she and Catechism co-writer Vicki Quade (pronounced "kwah-dee") have any other plays in the works, Donovan noted that they co-wrote 1994's Room For Advancement, about the American work ethic, which ran at Zebra Crossing. "We have written a sequel to Catechism; it's ready to go," Donovan noted, although no plans are yet announced for a production.
As for the original, Donovan made sure to explain that the show contains a lot of improvisation and audience participation, and thus changes every night. "We start with a 60-page script and work from there. When things are really rolling, we can go past two hours (sometimes I feel like I could go for three!) but the director likes me to keep it at an hour and forty five."
For Donovan, the most crucial point of the show is that even though it's a comedy, people shouldn't confuse it with Nunsense or Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. "Nuns are not inept or unable to care for themselves," Donovan strongly avowed. "The few nuns who are left are administrators, deans -- amazingly capable people. They didn't become nuns because they're afraid of men or sex or whatever. I think back on my Catholic school days; these people raised an entire generation of America, of American leaders. Look at New York public schools, for example, and look at the difference with private schools. I'm really hoping someone brings that up in the audience participation Q&A!"
As if on cue, Donovan closes our conversation with the tag line, "You don't have to be Catholic to enjoy the show. Just as people in Chicago and New York and Melbourne all laugh in the exact same places, it's the same with all kinds of people. But when religious Catholics and nuns come to see the show, nine out of ten prefer Catechism [to Nunsense and Ignatius] -- for them it's the real deal.
"Did you ever want to be a nun?" I nudge.
"All Catholic girls want to be nuns -- for a minute. When I was in second grade, mom made me a costume for Halloween, and I loved it! I mean, you don't have to go to Church on Sunday to be Catholic; you can't NOT be. You see Debbie Reynolds as the singing nun and you suddenly realize you know all the words."
Maripat Donovan received two Chicago "Jeff" Citations for playing "Mama" in Portrait Of A Shiksa and "Aunt Margaret in The Good Times Are Killing Me. Vicki Quade's latest play, Mr. Nanny has had staged readings in Chicago and is moving towards production there. Late Nite Catechisms begins previews Sept. 26, and is scheduled for an open run. For tickets and information call (212)279 4200.
-- By David Lefkowitz