BWW Review: BAD HABITS World Premiere Comedy at Ruskin Group Theatre Takes an Irreverent Look at Dedicated Nuns Trying to Save Their Struggling Convent
We all know how unintentionally funny nuns can be as they go about their daily lessons, ruler in hand, trying to get children to behave or do their lessons. Or perhaps not. But just imagine if you could be a fly on the wall in the early morning hours, listening in as they get together over coffee or while baking bread in their small kitchen and blissfully make fun of not only their students but each other, as well as their local Bishop who holds all the money needed to keep their beloved St. Cyril's convent and school from closing down. They smoke and swear while complaining about being old, jaded and stupid, but realize that just like their building and the entire neighborhood around them, we're just "all dirt poor." And incredibly funny!
Given the wondrous smell of baking bread which fills the theater, these nuns are hard at work every day, doing their best to care for inner-city children the world seems to have forgotten. As the convent's dedicated and very Irish Mother Superior, Alley Mills does her best to hold the nuns in line, both literally and figuratively, as they attempt to get their students ready for the convent's annual Christmas pageant fundraiser. But how can they possibly make enough to keep the convent open, given the repairs needed will cost even more than the old building is worth?
Adding in some real-life mutual affinity and trust, Mills' husband Orson Bean portrays The Bishop as a self-centered, wannabe comedian; always ready to tell an off-color joke whenever the opportunity arises. And he gets two opportunities to command the stage, generating tons of laughter as a man of the cloth lets his guard down and becomes "just a guy," especially during his opening remarks at the local Knights of Columbus meeting! Having started out his career as a stand-up comic, these scenes seem perfectly natural for Bean's delivery style.
Mills and Bean seem to know how to push each other's buttons as they circle around each other during the Mother Superior and Bishop's scenes together as she begs (offering loaves of the convent's delicious bread) to get him to fund the needed renovations to save her convent. But it is to no avail as The Bishop prefers to tear the building down and build his self-named dream cathedral instead. Several scenes between these two are totally entertaining and no doubt will continue to be a real draw to bring audiences in to see them together onstage. But it their real affinity for their characters, as well as each other, that shines through during each of their dialogues and/or arguments.
After much derisive chortling leads to believing the only way to save their convent is to trust in the "Almighty" and pray for an intervention to send a miracle, a knock in the middle of the night during a rainstorm brings in the form of a miraculous young woman named Maria Salazar (Kelsey Griswold), a former convent student who seems to have hallucinations and can predict the future. Or is she just crazy? Or might God just sit this one out, leaving the Sisters to rely on their annual Christmas pageant fundraiser, which will be featuring a particularly surprising number? Part of what happens to Maria as she sleepwalks leads to one of the funniest intermission bits I have ever witnessed, which I don't want to spoil by revealing it here. But it will stick with me and bring recurring chuckles for a long time!
The four good sisters are portrayed to perfection by a talented quartet of performers. There's Sister Maggie (Lee Garlington) who commands the stage as the school's basketball coach, running in with ball in hand and whistle in mouth, then offering her team a lesson for looking pitiful to get The Bishop to fund the school. I had a lot of fun with this scene, being pointed out as making the best pitiful face in the audience!
German-born Sister Helga (Mouchette van Helsdingen) could scare any students into behaving, but is really a softy at heart who has seen it all and chosen to not bear it in silence. Her pointed observations are spot on, and hysterically funny coming from the mouth of such a dedicated nun who seems to thrive with a lit cigarette in her hand at every chance she gets.
Streetwise Sister Anthea (Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield) has the type of booming, multi-octave voice which overpowers not only the sisters during choir practice, but every rehearsal she holds with her second-grade class. Schofield's ever-bulging eyes and double-takes add in tons of fun and laughter each time a scene centers around her character who believes in her faith as well as her sisters, no matter what. After welcoming us back after intermission by reminding us to "settle down after recess," after measuring a few skirts, Schofield's Sister Anthea demonstrates what a musical run is, leading to a magnificent jazzy riff as she lets the spirit move her to create such a joyful noise!
Sister Claire (Jacquelynne Fontaine, former Miss California 2006 who is also the Musical Director of BAD HABITS) was a bad girl herself, so there is no way any of her students will ever put anything over on her, as much as they try her patience attempting to do so. There is a small keyboard set up onstage and Fontaine certainly makes herself right at home accompanying the other three sisters as they attend choir practice. More moments of comic genius ensue!
And just be ready to join in singing a few very well-known Christmas carols during the show, including "Jingle Bells," "Deck the Halls," and "Silent Night," as well as be willing to follow the direction from any of nuns who call upon you as one of their classroom students, be it to change seats or stand up so the length of your skirt can be measured. Have fun and play along!
Tech credits are solid and often inspirational, thanks to Brad Bentz (Scenic Design), Edward Salas (Lighting and Sound Design), and Michael Mullen (Costume Design) who has impeccably dressed Orson Bean as the righteous Bishop.
Director Mike Reilly keeps the action moving along with a minimum of scenery pieces re-arranged by the nuns while one of them speaks to the audience as her students preparing for the upcoming Christmas Pageant. Speaking to his take on the play, Reilly shares, "Though slightly irreverent, the story is warmly affectionate in its take on the life of a group of nuns dedicated to their underprivileged neighborhood. Steve Mazur's script intertwines the folly of our imperfect human efforts with the mystery of the divine - it is both biting and joyous. The central questions: what is the nature of faith, whom should we serve, and what meaning, if any, can be discerned from the mysterious. All provide opportunities for the Sisters and their Bishop to make fools of themselves, while along the way discovering a deeper part of their own humanity. This is, ultimately, a life affirming, joyful play."
Sure the play, written by Steve Mazur who wrote the book for the highly entertaining Paul Overstreet musical "Sneaky Ole Time," which debuted at the Ruskin in 2015, could benefit from a little editing to cut down on the repetitive nature of some scenes, while an end-of-the-curtain-call sing-along led by Bean as he crosses the stage would add a bit of holiday spirit to send the audience on their way. But overall, it's a fun two hours laughing at our human foibles within the most sacred of places.
The world premiere of BAD HABITS runs at 8pm Fridays and Saturdays, 2pm Sundays through January 26, 2020 (No performances: Dec 27 - Dec 29, 2019, or Jan 3, 2020). Ruskin Group Theatre is located at 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405. Tickets are $25 - $35 and can be purchased in advance by calling (310) 397-3244 or online at www.ruskingrouptheatre.com.
Photo credit: Ed Krieger