I admit, I'd been putting off seeing Sister's Christmas Catechism, the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts' annual holiday hopeful over at Theater 4301, after early reviews were less than glowing.
No way. Our Patti Hannon — star of the record-breaking "Late Nite Catechism" and its sequel at the Scottsdale Center — slipping?
In denial, I hemmed and hawed. Rescheduled three times, pushing my arrival two weeks into the run.
And thank goodness for that. Hannon must've had an off opening weekend, because "Christmas Catechism," like the others written by Maripat Donovan, is a treat. A funny, lovingly irreverent ode to the Santa-less, religious side of the holiday.
Entirely like the "Late Nite" classes in Catholicism she's been performing at the center for six years now, Hannon's Christmas celebration finds her Sister donning the ol' black-and-white habit — a chunky rosary orbiting her midsection — while this time, instead of lecturing on saints and sins, she waxes nunly about the Nativity and interacts teasingly with the audience, her students, like a papal Don Rickles.
It's meant to be Sister's version of a Christmas party, complete with choral music and a recreation of the Nativity — though in this nun's laughably skewed world, that means recruiting Valley folks to sing in the choir and accosting audience members with makeshift lost-and-found-box costumes to replicate Mary, Joseph and the manger's menagerie of visitors on that oh so holy night of Jesus' birth.
If Sister seems uncharacteristically excited about staging the Nativity — "This is so much fun," she giggles from inside the penguin suit — she eventually lets her underlying motivation be known: She's become a forensic crime show buff of late, and she wants to use the staging to discover who could have made off with the gold given to Jesus. (The logic being, if the gold hadn't been stolen, why were Jesus and his folks still roughing it in the barn?)
Sure, it's a gimmicky premise, and Donovan's script is too hung up on having substantial plot movement to relax and simply let the belly laughs flow. But Hannon's gift for comic delivery compensates.
Though it's understandable how some might find a strange quality to her performance: Ever since taking on the second "Catechism" show, and more so now with this third, Hannon's had a distracted quality to her acting — half-botching the occasional line, stammering setups to punchlines, losing her train of thought so profoundly she has to ask the audience what she was just talking about.
But that's part of the charm of Sister, part of what makes Hannon work in the role, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was a character choice. Isn't it just like an aging educator, one who's been giving the same classes for so many years, to wander off now and then?
If I have a quibble with "Christmas Catechism," it's that chorus of carolers. The group I saw Thursday night was a small Phoenix church ensemble, and their singing was fine — but too much stage time at the start was given over to colorless Christmas standards, tune after relentless tune.
>> "Sister's Christmas Catechism" runs through Dec. 31 at Theater 4301, 4301 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale. $38. (480) 994-2787. Grade: B+