She's Back (in Black)!

The holiday season at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza: One gift, one lump of coal.

Let us be merry: The prodigal nun has returned. Six years ago the one-woman interactive entertainment Late Nite Catechism set up house on the top floor of the Grandel Theatre, where it proceeded to captivate delighted audiences for an unprecedented eleven months and then for another four months in 2003-'04. Sister, that lovable Woman in Black, whose classroom instruction offered a harmonious mix of whimsy, piety, authority and, yes, even the occasional threat of rapped knuckles, made St. Louis a more benevolent place. She has been missed.

Two years ago a cloned pretender arrived on the scene in a mélange of karaoke and sheet cake called Bingo Extravaganza! Co-authored by Late Nite's Maripat Donovan, that untidy opus, which had its world premiere at the Playhouse at West Port Plaza, is best forgotten (if you haven't already). Due to the lingering sour memories of Bingo, I attended the first performance of the newest Donovan installment, Sister's Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi's Gold, with cynicism. (If the second one wasn't any good, what could we expect from the third?) It took all of maybe two minutes for Nonie Newton-Breen's incarnation of Sister to win me over completely. If the sheer act of indulging in happiness is enough to satisfy, then let the word go out that happy days are here again.

There's no pre-show announcement encouraging us to turn off our cell phones; with Sister ruling the roost, you leave a cell phone on at your peril. Instead the show starts almost in spite of itself. Joseph Dreyer appears as if from nowhere and sings Christmas carols. (Sister definitely plays favorites, and "Joseph" is one of her favorite names. You can guess why.) As Dreyer does his imitation of an insecure lounge singer, take a moment to scan the classroom set. Two words fill the blackboard: LET'S PARTY! That phrase sets the tone. This is not a serious comedy that travels a journey, as did the original Catechism. But neither is it a pale rip-off on the order of Bingo. Sister's Christmas Catechism is a party, something that only can be staged one month a year. Let the revelry begin.

Bobby Miller, Alan Knoll and Chopper Leifheit zip through the holidays in Story.
Bobby Miller, Alan Knoll and Chopper Leifheit zip through the holidays in Story.

Details

Sister's Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi's Gold | Every Christmas Story Ever ToldThrough December 30 at the Playhouse at West Port Plaza, 635 West Port Plaza (second level), Page Avenue and I-270, Maryland Heights. Tickets are $41 (tickets for Every Christmas Story are $29.50 and $35). Call 314-469-7529 or visit www.theplayhouseatwestport.com.

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Sister stealthily arrives from the back of the house, dismisses her "choir of one" and immediately chastises the gleeful audience. "Let's simmer down," she admonishes. "It's like Lord of the Flies in here." A moment later: "Stop that clapping. We're not Baptists, are we?" The answer to her rhetorical question is Yes, some probably are. Sister plays to an ecumenical crowd, predominantly but not exclusively Catholic, and she succeeds in making religion seem inclusive. Newton-Breen treads the delicate balance between affection and insult with admirable restraint. She kneads the audience as if we were a lump of putty in her fingers (about which, more later).

Although some of her material is straight from the tabloids (Sister is not persuaded by sightings of the Virgin Mary on grilled-cheese sandwiches), she veers away from the political. Her advice that Mel Gibson and Ann Coulter should get married is as incendiary as she's willing to go.

It's almost with a sense of anticlimax that in time Sister must turn away from the audience participation and get to the matter at hand. The show's subtitle alludes to "The Mystery of the Magi's Gold," so in Act Two Sister feels obligated to solve this little mystery that no one really cares about anyway. If you view the evening as a play, then Act Two can feel like an anticlimax. But if you adhere to the party motif, Act Two is akin to a round of charades or musical chairs: an activity that is hardly necessary to the party's success, but one that doesn't detract all that much either.

Of course the mystery-solving entails bringing people up from the audience. Like most viewers, I dread being dragged onstage. The initial performance was skimpily attended (a situation that surely will change as word of mouth kicks in), so I knew I was going to end up as part of the act. Sure enough, all too soon I found myself garbed as one of the three wise men, which turned out to be not so painful. From that onstage vantage point, it was intriguing to watch how Newton-Breen used her pointed and kinetic fingers. They were so mesmerizing that for a moment I fancied they might, like Charlton Heston's staff in The Ten Commandments, turn into snakes. Those fingers somehow embodied the economy of her performance: She seems to be doing nothing, yet her energy and focus are channeled into the moment.

Another onstage discovery was to realize just how small the audience was that night. Before the show began, it had felt wee. But the laughs were so constant and fulsome, I'd have thought Sister was playing to standing room only. To see the response she was getting from so few people increased my admiration for her effortless chore. On a purely personal note, I might add that all that day I had been enduring a splitting headache. Nothing helped. I entered the Playhouse with the ache at full strength; yet when I left 105 minutes later, I felt renewed. So for me, not only is Newton-Breen's Sister a wonderfully effective comedienne, she's also a kind of faith healer.

Would that I could end this review on that high note. But alas, duty requires that I also report on the second Playhouse offering, Every Christmas Story Ever Told, which performs in repertory with Catechism. Repertory is a dangerous enterprise for any theater at any time, but never more so than now, when so many theatergoing decisions are made at the last minute — and a viewer might not be sure which play is being staged when. The Playhouse management has bitten off an ambitious endeavor, and to no real avail, because Every Christmas Story Ever Told is about as cheerful as a flat tire in a rainstorm.

This dubious notion of three guys (Alan Knoll, Chopper Leifheit, Bobby Miller) trying to ape classic holiday material is derivative to the point of copyright infringement. It could be argued that there's not one single original moment in the entire first act. On the other hand, if witticisms like suggesting that A Child's Christmas in Wales was written by Bob Dylan and The Gift of the Magi was penned by William Henry Porter, "known as the candy bar O. Henry" amuse you, then have at it.

We're also treated to the obligatory: guys in drag, more audience participation. (These three could take a lesson from watching the respect with which Sister treats her victims.) We sense that the three performers had a grand time amusing each other in rehearsal, but it doesn't carry over into the production, which, as directed by Lee Anne Mathews, mistakes faster for funnier.

Then in Act Two (yes, Virginia, there is an Act Two; this extended revue actually has the temerity to take an intermission), the triad stages a version of A Christmas Carol interspersed with references from It's a Wonderful Life. It's no secret that the venerable Capra film borrowed liberally from Dickens' plot. But to see these couplings acted out almost borders on the original. Among the lengthy sketch's happier moments, Knoll makes up for his Act One Paul Lynde impersonations by concocting an endearingly angelic Clarence.

It ain't art, but at least it salvages the evening from being a total loss. 

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