Two very good reasons to see Christopher Durang's two, one act comedies double-billed as “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All To You" are lead actor Matt Sullivan in the first, short play “The Actor’s Nightmare” and Berkshire favorite Harriet Harris in the second, title play. Another reason is to see how ingeniously funny and angry can mix.
In “Actor’s Nightmare” Sullivan plays Aloysius Benheim, an accountant who improbably finds himself on stage in a play for which he is utterly unqualified and unprepared. Durang plumbs the not-uncommon, bad-dream of inadequacy and brings a farcical scenario to morbid conclusion. Along the way Sullivan hilariously stumbles as Hamlet through a Noel Coward-style farce, colliding with a bitchingly arch (and I’m not just referring to her eyebrows) diva (played by the reliably arch Harriet Harris), a supercilious Shakespearian ham (a wonderful Tom Story) and a lunatic mother-in-garbage-can from Becket’s “Endgame” (a delightful Ariana Venturi). Durang, as usual, satirizes both his Catholic background (out of sheer desperation Sullivan breaks into the Act of Confession) and, with non-stop inside baseball allusions, theatre and all its “carnie folk”. Sullivan negotiates the role with perfect timing and mirth that transcends Aloysius’ fate.
If “The Actor’s Nightmare” ranks among the blackest of farcical comedy, then “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You” is among the blackest of black comedy. Harriet Harris in the title role completely owns this 50-minute play from beginning to end, but is at her absolute best in the opening 20-minute monologue where she explains sin and heaven-purgatory-hell (limbo, too). Her zany, pre-Ecumenical Council (1950s) zealotry gets a little darker when she’s visited by 7 year old Thomas (a very well trained Levi Hall) whom she taught in grammar school. Creepily Sister Ignatius rewards Thomas with cookies - as one might train Spot with “doggie treats” - for perfect recitation of the Baltimore Catechism. Matters turn black when four of Sister’s students (Sullivan plus cast from “Actors Nightmare”), now adult, show up, laying at Sister’s feet lifetime experiences with alcoholism, abortion, homosexuality and spousal abuse. Sister Ignatius isn’t forgiving. What some will do in service of Jesus Christ!
The obvious satirical target of Durang's harangue is the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. First staged in 1979, now some 40 years later, “Sister Ignatius” in its specificity might be regarded as a period piece. Not so. Durang’s play reminds that today’s Sister Ignatiuses aren’t Roman Catholic nuns; they’re religious fundamentalists worldwide and non-Christian behaving American Christians spewing the same prejudice, intolerance and hate. Morbid as it is, Durang’s humor endures. His anger still applies.
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