Durang Damaged

Rude Guerrilla's production of two Christopher Durang shorts, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, unveils something about the oft-heralded New Jersey-born playwright that his faithful flock is unaware of: if you were to go by Universe alone, it's clear Durang sucks.

Though the cast is fine enough, the script is a convoluted mess—makes you think Durang sat down one day and said, "I'll take the I Love Lucy theme, throw in a put-upon yet horrifically perky housewife, a narrator, a junkie pimp, a gay guy, a severed penis, some wanton bitch-slapping, a Fuller brush salesman (even though that'll instantly date everything), a delirious pope, a wigged-out nun, Iceland, a father who talks like he's a TV-commercial pitchman, God, suffering, assassination, false prophets and a little human sacrifice, sign my name to it, and everyone will call it genius because I'm Christopher Fucking Durang!" Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is easier to follow than this speed nightmare. Somewhere in Universe might be a message—1950s America wasn't as innocent as Republicans might like to think. But anyone with even a passing sense of history knows that by now, which is why—when it's not confusing the bejesus out of you—this Universe is simply, inexcusably dull.

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, probably Durang's most famous work, is marginally better. Big Sis Mary is a Catholic nun in full habit who starts out lecturing to a classroom full of students (played by us, the audience) about God, Jesus, heaven, hell and purgatory, using cutesy charts on which all the people look like yellow smiley faces. She trots out current pupil Thomas, a little boy who can recite the Ten Commandments on Mary's command like a perfectly programmed automaton, and in doing so is rewarded with chocolate treats—kind of like a well-trained dogma dog. Mary is the ultimate Nightmare Catholic Caricature, one who hates queers, single mothers, masturbators and women who've had abortions. When some of her old students who just so happen to fit those labels show up, ostensibly to put on a Christmas pageant, she's confronted with the juxtaposition between the naive world she laid out for them and the world they wound up creating for themselves.

At this point, Durang could've gone somewhere short of over-the-top—maybe Mary is truly changed, even moved through a revelation. But Durang being Durang, he cranks up Mary's psychosis and sticks a gun in her hands. That helped Sister Mary generate ticket-selling controversy when it first premiered in 1981, but it doesn't do much to win converts to Durang's free-thinking, atheist position on Catholicism and organized faith. It's a tad extreme, even in this age of kiddie-boffing priest scandals. Religious rhetoric is often harsh, but so's the last quarter of Sister Mary.

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and The Nature and Purpose of the Universe by the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. at the Empire Theatre, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Thurs., Aug. 15, 8 p.m. Through Aug. 18. $12-$15.

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