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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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Last night I saw the play Late Night Catechism with my parents and wife. I only call it a play because that’s what they call it. In reality, I believe it’s more of a improvisational stand-up act—more on that later.

The show’s premise is that the audience is being forced to attend some adult catechism classes for the purpose of becoming godparents or witnessing baptismals. I’ll confess my ignorance on this because I am wholly unaware of Catholic doctrine. The normal teacher, Father Murphy, had a poker night and so Sister Something-Or-Other (she never said her name) is filling in. Rather than make you aware of the dogma, she’s going to fill you in on Catholic culture. Why a nun would do this in such a comedic fashion is beyond me, but I’ll suspend disbelief.

She then proceeds to interact with the audience, asking questions and pointing out aberrant behavior by Catholic school standards. Inevitably, a bunch of the audience are Catholic school graduates or Catholics of some devotion. She zeroes in on those and uses them as auxiliary actors throughout the show. She also delivers Catholic history lessons on the various saints, using them as springboards for comments on the Catholic Church then and now—then being the heyday of the forties and fifties.

The set design was fairly sparse, consisting of a desk, blackboard, two bookcases, and a podium. There were knickknacks of Catholic utility spread throughout the stage and Sister gave out small tokens to audience members who participated. It was exactly what one would expect in a small parish classroom. Her costume was a traditional habit with nothing particular on it.

I cannot figure out what role playwrights Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan played in this production. Sure, there were snippets of obviously scripted monologues but the rest was the result of Sister’s audience interaction. Sister (played by Patty Hannon) was quite masterful at thinking on her feet because there were a bunch of things that the audience members said for which she couldn’t have prepared. On the other hand, these same things could not have been in the play. Perhaps the play was the monologues punctuated by an outline of possible questions for the audience and possible acts to catch them in?

At what point does a play cease being a play and become improvisation? I think Late Night Catechism has certainly crossed that threshold. When more than half the show consists of reaction to audience interactions, I think you can safely say that this is the stuff of improv. Naturally, the actress playing Sister has a background in Chicago improvisation. I’m not a big fan of improvisation, preferring instead the traditional plays by Ibsen, Rattigan, and others of that vein. I’ve even enjoyed plays by Miller, Coward, and Wilder. Improvisation just seems like stand-up comedy with costumes and contrived situations. If I wanted that, I could watch a sitcom and I would have the assurance of a well-acted, well-conceived script—that might be a bit of a stretch, but it’s definitely scripted and conceived.

The show is being put on in nine cities on an ongoing basis with twenty other shows interspersed. It’s also available at your corporate event and as a fundraiser for your Catholic school. They’ve made this “play” into quite a little money-maker. I saw it at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts—a more pretentious setting I know not—and it’s probably going to be there awhile. While you’re there, be sure to check out Menopause: The Musical—yet another fine “play,” I’m certain.