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Sister's Christmas Catechism

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Maripat Donovan
Photo Courtesy of Entertainment Events.

If you removed all the instances of audience participation - voluntary or otherwise - and borderline standup from Sister's Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi's Gold, you'd be left with 10 minutes of story. That's a generous estimate, by the way. But the problem with this show, which just opened at the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre at Sophia's, isn't that there's that little story - it's that there's that much of it. Everything else is livelier and much, much funnier.

Given the identity of the Sister of the title, that shouldn't be surprising. It's the portentously unnamed nun who since the early 1990s has been at the knuckle-rapping center of the Late Nite Catechism series, which now spans three shows in addition to this one. And as played by her originator and writer, Maripat Donovan, and directed by Marc Silvia, she's truly priceless: the embodiment of preĀ–Vatican II authoritarianism mixed with an abiding passion for both God and everything related to Him and His most famous piece of writing.

In conducting her class about the lesser-known aspects of the Christmas Story (pop quiz: What was Mary's father's name, and how is it properly pronounced? And which action star did Joseph most resemble? What do the colors of the candy cane represent?), she filled out every spare second with lovingly vituperative recriminations against the poor members of the audience (and the rest of the production), who would be out of their depth even if they'd memorized the Bible cover to cover.

She demanded the on-hand Baptist gospel choir (yes, Baptist) change the lyrics of "Jingle Bells" to reference Jesus. In assessing the audience's willingness, she chided, "Complete submission, that's all I'm looking for." A gum chewer got read the riot act. When someone tried to prod a lucky woman whom Sister asked to choose a prize between a holy card and a box of Christmas Peeps, she responded with, "Stop it, she has free will!" And in the funniest (hopefully unplanned) running gag, she wrote one audience member's name on the chalk board, complete with tick marks representing how much trouble he was in for his smart-mouthed replies. (Luckily, he only accumulated two.)

Lightning-fast on her feet, and in sufficient command of her material to extrapolate and expand on doctrine when necessary, Donovan alone puts on a heaven of a show. It's only when she broadens her scope that things weaken. The "plot," such as it is, about Sister's obsession with forensics TV shows leading her to investigate what happened to the gold the Three Kings presented Jesus at the manger, is even slighter than it is silly. And though her dragging audience members onstage and forcing them to dress in shower curtains, lampshades, and drapes to create a living Nativity is amusing, the victims have very little to do - the payoff is nowhere near as elaborate, as elongated, or as elating as the setup.

Still, a bit of excess is expected in most holiday shows, and this isn't exactly the Radio City Christmas Spectacular - Silvia's production design, which includes a realistic classroom for Act I and a lovely Bethlehem drop for Act II, and Catherine Evans's costumes (including Donovan's full habit) are attractive. But Sister's Christmas Catechism doesn't need the help. You'll probably have the most fun if you have the appropriate Catholicism background - especially of the educational variety - but Donovan's unfaltering comedic sense and obvious reverence for the true meaning of the season ensure that this unabashedly Jesus-loving evening also has serious nondenominational entertainment potential.

Sister's Christmas Catechism
Through January 3
Downstairs Theatre at Sofia's, 227 West 46th Street, next to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
TICKETS by phone at 212.947.9300
Performances: Tues 7:30 pm, Wed 2:00 pm, Wed 8:00 pm, Th 8:00 pm, Sat 5:00 pm, Sun 3:00 pm

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