Even for us Catholics, the Little Theatre Group’s Sept. 18 performance of “Nunsense” started slow and missed some of its jokes. But as the actors warmed up, and perhaps as audience members accustomed themselves to the play’s punny humor, the musical began to draw laughs.
“Nunsense,” which originally opened off Broadway in 1985, is a send-up of a rapidly dwindling order of nuns in Hoboken, New Jersey. Five remaining nuns decide to stage a show to raise money to bury their sisters, who were tragically killed by a bad pot of vichyssoise, and entertain the audience with a mixture of saint jokes, petty rivalries and wacky dances.
This play-within-a-play structure is the best part of the show, and is enhanced by the elegant set, artfully built by Dale Watson, Dorothy and Bob Allison and Arnie Harrison to resemble a high school auditorium.
A large “Grease” sign looms over the stage, reminding the audience that the nuns are, after all, amateurs – much like the high school children they teach, who might be rehearsing lines for their own play somewhere in the wings.
The tricky thing is that to play an amateur in an arresting, humorous way, you have to be a really good actor. The best productions about bad acting – “The Producers” (1968), “To Be or Not to Be” (1942), “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1592) – have traditionally featured some of the most skilled performers. There needs to be a taut energy in each scene that captures audience members, forcing them to suspend their disbelief and openly laugh at the actors as if they really were a bunch of fools putting on a play.
The first act of “Nunsense” seemed to lack that energy. The actors looked and sounded strained, even tired, occasionally dropping their characters for a few seconds while they scurried to get to their next spot or waited to say their next line. Perhaps this was exacerbated by the small audience.
Since the play is very interactive, it becomes clear quickly if the audience is not enthused, which naturally impacts the performers.
Sister Robert Anne, played by Sheila McCann-Morrison, was an exception to the low-energy ethos of the first act. McCann-Morrison played the reformed-bad-girl nun with big dreams well, using her powerful voice to belt out “Playing Second Fiddle” and “I Just Want to Be a Star.” Sister Mary Amnesia, played by Pilar Saavedra-Vela, also began to warm up as the show went on, and portrayed her lost and confused character convincingly. The Reverend Mother, played by Stacy Chamblin, was at her best when she unknowingly sniffed drugs and began to giggle, at one point placing a basketball under her habit and declaring, “It’s a miracle!” Chamblin, who was supposed to be the hard-as-nails nun everyone loves to hate, began succeeding at her role halfway through the production.
The second half of the show moved faster, with the actors appearing more comfortable and natural. Sister Mary Hubert, played by Kathryn Smith, shone in a performance of “Holier Than Thou,” and Sister Mary Leo, played by 18-year-old Lindsey Gutiérrez, drew laughs with a dance interpreting the nuns’ death-by-soup. After a slow start, the nuns punned their way to some laughs by the end.
Performances run through this weekend at San José’s Laurence Olivier Theater, at Avenida 2, Calle 28, next to Sala Garbo. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. For reservations, call 8355-1623 or go to www.littletheatregroup.org.