Having survived and prospered after 15 years of Catholic school education both prior to and after the changes wrought by Vatican II – I was a “public” my first year of college – I’ve come to love the “Late Night Catechism” shows. For me, they’re a return to simpler times when the world was far more black and white than it is now. Plus, there’s a shared camaraderie that exists among the audience members who experienced many of the same rituals (and nuns) at schools spread out around the country.
And, quite honestly, they’re funny as hell – which helps explain the series’ popularity since the initial installment debuted almost 20 years ago in Chicago.
But what’s equally fascinating – and this became quite apparent at a recent Saturday matinee at Detroit’s Gem Theatre – is how non-Catholics respond to the shows, whether they were dragged there by a spouse or just showed up out of curiosity.
The Gem’s current show, “Late Night Catechism 3: ‘Til Death Do Us Part,” follows the format of its predecessors: The Sister, dressed in her full, pre-Vatican II habit, arrives in her classroom to teach an adult catechism class. The subjects this time are the sacraments of Marriage and Last Rights, but throughout the first act, the discussion wanders across a plethora of topics. The second act, though, is devoted to what Sister calls “The Compatibility Game” – a mash-up of the TV game shows “Match Game” and “The Newlywed Game.” Here, two couples from the audience – the longest married and the most recently married – are brought on stage to compete for prizes. The three rounds test how well the spouses know one another, and the duo that finishes with the most points wins.
Sound easy? Of course it’s not – especially the second game called “The Lesser of Two Evils” in which each couple must match their answers to such questions as: Which place would you rather visit – Hell or a trailer park in Hazel Park? “Both answers are kind of crummy,” Sister teases the contestants at the start of the game. And they are – but purposely so to generate the most laughs.
Like all of the “Late Night Catechism” shows, “‘Til Death Do Us Part” is a mix of stand-up comedy, improv and scripted comedy – with Sister acting as the ringmaster. And that means all of the “bits” the audience loves and expects are included as well. Show up late? You’ll have to pay Sister a dollar to help purchase a Pagan Baby. Ladies, do you show too much skin? Then sister will gladly provide you with Kleenex to cover up the offending body parts. And heaven forbid: Don’t let your cell phone go off or let her you catch you chewing gum! (All of these happened at the Saturday matinee – and the audience loved every minute of it!)
But as you might imagine, to cover the material in Maripat Donovan’s script AND ride herd over an alcohol-fueled audience isn’t easy. Yet actress Mary Zentmyer makes it look rather effortless, with a performance that could convert even the most die-hard atheist. It’s obvious Zentmyer knows the material inside out and frontwards and backwards. But she’s at her best interacting with the audience.
Unlike the stereotypes of the mean and scary nun, Zentmyer’s Sister is all smiles and charm – with a devilish playful streak that disarms audience members who find themselves on her radar screen. At the matinee performance, for example, a non-Catholic man nicknamed Buck was there with his Catholic wife to celebrate her birthday. Zentmyer didn’t seem to mind his occasional interruptions – the celebration obviously included alcoholic beverages. Instead, she got even with him by selecting the couple for the second act game show where she could have all sorts of fun with him! And she did!
Two other non-Catholics also factored heavily in the performance. A Hindu man who seemed to know more about Catholic sacraments than did the Catholics in the audience became the timekeeper in the second act, while a man in yet another mixed marriage – that is, he’s not Catholic but his wife is – found himself in the game as well.
And from all appearance, they had a wonderful time – thanks to Zentmyer’s good-natured ribbing.
So just like the nuns of yesteryear, Zentmyer is in total command of her classroom – and this student can’t wait for the next catechism lesson coming soon to The Gem Theatre!
‘Late Night Catechism 3: ‘Til Death Do Us Part’
The Gem Theatre, 333 Madison Ave., Detroit. Wednesday-Sunday through March 6. $29.50-$34.50. 313-963-9800. http://www.GemTheatre.com.