It's only in Act Two of A Night of One-Acts by Chris Durang that we finally encounter top-notch acting and a provocative script. The play that provides these desiderata is Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, one of Durang's most celebrated — and some would say notorious — satires.
Other than this, we see sketches that suffer either from an adolescent sensibility (in the writing) or unevenness and failure to convince (in the acting and directing). But Sister Mary is different. You notice it the moment Dawn Truax, in a nun's habit, addresses the audience as if we were schoolchildren being taught church dogma.
Truax is marvelous in these opening minutes: smug, authoritarian, wryly critical of liberalizing tendencies in the church and nostalgic for the days of castrati and meatless Fridays. After a while she's joined by Jack Holloway as 7-year-old Thomas, a boy whom she's trained and who receives a cookie every time he correctly answers one of her questions. ("What is the sixth commandment?" "Would you like to keep your pretty soprano voice forever?")
As impressively directed by C. David Frankel, Holloway and Truax make a frighteningly confident pair, a closed system within which there's no room for real discussion. It's precisely this certainty that Durang is critiquing in Sister Mary Ignatius — and by extension, any religious dialogue that doesn't allow for honest objections — and one senses that Durang, who had a Catholic education, is writing not only from anger but from pain. He was once, we assume, in the position of little Thomas, and he's had to work desperately hard for his intellectual freedom. Now he's taking his revenge, and it's not at all pretty.
Enter four former students of Sister Mary, all of whom have reason to want to punish and embarrass her. There's Gary, who's gay; Diane, who was raped; Philomena, an unwed mother; and Aloysius, a suicidal, wife-beating alcoholic. All have come to accuse Sister Mary of failing to prepare them for life and its complexities, and each has a few moments to rebuke her.
But Diane, played feelingly by the talented April Bender, goes further than this. She delivers a long monologue about the suffering her mother underwent before she died of cancer, about unanswered prayers and her suspicion that not God but randomness rules the universe. What's powerful about this monologue is not that it's convincing — it won't swerve any believer from faith or any atheist from doubt — but that it makes us call to mind our own sense of Cosmic Law.
Listening to Diane's anguished complaint — which may take some of its power from the fact that Durang's mother died of cancer — we find ourselves recalling our own understanding of suffering and evil, our own sense of first principles, our own deepest beliefs.
It's not every play that can elicit such a profound reaction, and though some may find Sister Mary offensive, I think it's essentially positive. It's certainly one of the most daring plays I've seen in months. And thanks to Truax's fine acting, it's also one of the most aesthetically successful.
The four other pieces that make up the evening are interesting enough, but all fail to satisfy for one reason or another. 'Dentity Crisis is the story of Jane, a depressed, suicidal woman who illustrates R. D. Laing's theory that mental illness can be a logical response to a dysfunctional family. Jane's clan, we soon learn, consists of a mother who believes that she invented cheese, and a multiple-identity male who claims to be her father, brother and grandfather.
In the course of the play, Jane's mother smashes a banana into a heap of bread and claims that she's invented banana bread, while Jane's therapist has a sex-change operation and insists that he henceforth be addressed as "Harriet."
The problem with the play is that it's a one-joke contraption: Once we've recognized that the problem is indeed Jane's family, there's little more to absorb except further examples of the obvious.
Another problem is the acting. Only the abundantly comic Bender as Jane's mother makes the most of her role. Holloway as split-personality Robert/Dwayne/Grandpa is too loud and not convincingly multiple; Kevin Whalen as Jane's therapist is too laid-back and realistic; and Jonelle Meyer as Jane does little more than look desolate. Anthony Casale's direction is adequate but not illuminating; he fails to elicit a unifying style from his actors.
No amount of good directing could save The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of Where Babies Come From. This is the sort of leeringly suggestive sketch that might delight a precocious 12-year-old, but is much too juvenile for anyone teenaged or older. Frank and Joe Hardy decide to learn where babies come from. They call on Nurse Ratched, a sex maniac who molests them. And that's the whole story, as staged by Holloway and acted skillfully by Whalen (Joe) and unconvincingly by Curtis Belz (Frank).
More adult (but not much more successful) is Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room, in which a playwright named Chris lunches with a film development specialist named Melissa Stearn. She wants Chris to write a film about a rabbi and a priest who fall in love, and who each has a sex-change operation without telling the other.
There are a few virtues to this rather under-imagined sketch: Bender's acting again, Chris Wagenheim's portrayal of a borscht-obsessed waiter, and a few moments with Whalen and Holloway as the priest and rabbi.
But this dump-on-Hollywood play has been done a dozen times by scribes from Mamet to Rabe, and Durang doesn't have much to add to the conversation. Nor does he have much to tell us about Medea in Medea, the play that closes the evening with a resounding thud. Only Wagenheim (who, I should disclose, is one of my students at USF) provides real humor in the role of Angel Ex Machina, all in white with phony-looking wings and carrying a smoke machine. It's hard to tell from my program, but I think Cassandra Millhouse deserves the congrats for this very funny costume; and Connie LaMarca-Frankel earns the kudos for outfitting Sister Mary.
Which brings me back to the best thing that this Hat Trick Theatre production has to offer. As to whether you ought to endure four losers for the sake of one winner, that's a calculation you'll have to make. But in any case, be aware: Sister Mary is the real thing; scorching satire beautifully acted and demanding a response. Love it or hate it, it'll make you think. Catholic or not, you'll find yourself forced to review your deepest beliefs.
And that's more than most plays — one-acts or full-lengths — ever accomplish.