It didn’t take Sister more than five minutes to straighten up all the slackers in the audience – I mean, class – at Theatre on the Square last night. Even before she made her stern, habit-swishing entrance she’d scolded my seat-mates for turning up late, confiscated the gum from the man in front of me and swapped a couple of cell phones between users too impolite (or savvy) to switch them off. As the one-woman comedy wonder of the long-running “Late Nite Catechism,” Sister (Nonie Newton-Breen) was in fine form – and so was the audience.
Mostly middle-aged and up, these folk had come prepared with smart answers and all the right “Yes, Sister!” choruses to participate, house-lights up, in the touring comedy about Catholicism and all its quirks. And although it often felt weirdly fake, like a TV studio audience with no cameras, it certainly made the show sparkle – because this is one comedy that involves everybody.
Newton-Breen, an 11-year-veteran of the show and raised Irish-Catholic herself, swung out her snappy comebacks as skillfully as a threatening ruler. On a stage set with old-school school-house memorabilia (blackboard, lectern, crucifixes) she dealt easily with folks who’d obviously done their homework. To the front-row guy who claimed he’d met his girlfriend on catholicmatch.com (though we later found out he was Mormon) she whipped out “It’s a double sin if you lie to a nun.” To the first errant cellphone owner: “Honey, you need to upgrade,” before recommending a confession app.
The script jokes ranged from alien confessions to Gothic weddings. Some sounded a little canned, but some were genuinely funny, like the marriage timeline with handy acronyms like S&W (Sacrifice and Weeping.) This latest “Late Nite Catechism” is subtitled “Til Death Do Us Part,” and covers (as the stage banner declares, with “Compatibility!” in bubbly ‘70s font) the sacraments of marriage and anointing of the sick, but Newton-Breen also took a general Q&A, poking gentle, non-offensive fun at Catholicism in general with her perfect Sister expressions – the grim, “I’m-gonna-get-you smile; the blank, “don’t-you-know-that-one stare. Her quick answers are just racy enough to be fun, but you still might think twice before bringing anyone under 15.
Of course the best part of the show is the finale. Sister’s Compatibility Game hauls two willing couples up from the audience in a 1970s game show that has a laugh at the Church, marriage and the audience all at once. While Friday’s audience lucked out – one of the men happened to be Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag, thoroughly embarrassed but a good sport – Newton-Breen’s fine timing and delightful acidity could make anyone look funny.
Which is the whole point of the show. Sure, if you’re Catholic (or been to Catholic school, or know a Catholic, or even just heard about it) you’ll love “Late Nite Catechism.” But pretty much everybody likes to laugh at other people’s foibles, and this show helps you do exactly that.
Just be sure to arrive on time and turn your phone off.
“Late Nite Catechism” runs 7:30 p.m. tonight, then 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27 and 28; 3 p.m. Jan. 28 and 29. $39. Theatre on the Square, 915 Broadway, Tacoma. 253-591-5894, www.broadwaycenter.org