Nunsense is Nonsense But You'll Love it Anyway

Anita Hollander, Susie Speidel and Kristin Bohr

Sometimes there's a disparity between how I feel about a play and how the rest of the audience feels about it. The Surflight's production of Dan Goggin's Nunsense is a perfect example. I warmed to the play only slowly and I can't say it's one of my favorites. But the opening night crowd went wild and gave it a standing ovation.

My late father used to have an expression. "Is the world out of step with Johnny or is Johnny out of step with the world?" Unless Johnny is some kind of genius, it's probably the latter. So why wasn't I as enthusiastic as the rest of the crowd?

Well, it's not like I disliked the show. It's a sweet and goofy tale of some nuns at The Little Sisters of Hoboken who put on a talent show to pay for an unexpected expense. Some vicious vichyssoise killed off a large number of their sisters and they have buried all but four of them. They won't be able to remove those last four from the freezer until they raise the money for proper burials.

My problem was that for me the show was sometimes just a little too easy on itself. I mean whimsical nuns who say unexpected things? This concept was old by the time Sidney Poitier starred in Lilies of the Field in 1963. It's just too ripe--overripe--and all the low hanging fruit has been picked. Still, the Surflight freshened it up by salting the script with local and timely references.

And the jokes were sometimes almost unbearably corny. (A nun ventriloquist dummy named Sister Mary Annette? Arggh!) This show has more corn than Oklahoma.

So why did the crowd go wild? Hey, there's nothing wrong with whimsy and corn. Disney built an empire on it. Then there was the innovative staging. The house lights stay up for the first ten minutes or so of the play as the nuns mill about the auditorium lobbing punchlines as they talk to the audience. They continue to involve the audience throughout the play. And if you're Catholic, as a good portion of the audience seemed to be, everything is at least twice as funny.

The five woman cast was extraordinary. Susie Speidel, who also directed and choreographed, has impeccable comic timing as Mother Superior. Anita Hollander, a one-woman seminar in comparative religion, segues from playing Golde in Fiddler on the Roof to playing an overeager second in command as Sister Hubert without missing a beat. Andrea McCullough is consistently funny as the star struck frustrated performer Sister Robert Anne. And the endlessly charming Elena Gutierrez once again stole my heart, this time as the earnest Sister Mary Leo. Gutierrez's singing voice is relentlessly sweet but I never tire of hearing it.

But for me, the best part of the show was a young scene stealer named Kristin Bohr. She plays the bubble headed Sister Mary Amnesia so well it's uncanny. Her bewildered looks after she delivers an unintended (to her character) punch line seem utterly unrehearsed. It's as if she really is that confused, rather than an actress pretending she's confused. Only her flawless delivery belies her seeming naiveté.

So don't mind my curmudgeonly nitpicking. Even if I think the whimsy was a bit treacly at times, and I choked on a kernel of corn here and there, I think you'll find the show thoroughly enjoyable. Go with my blessing, my child.

Evening performances run through September 13, 2003 at 8:00 p.m. with matinees on September 10, 13 and 14 at 2 p.m. More information is available at the Surflight site.