Raven Theatre

Raven Theatre clearly thought it had a captivating double bill with Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Patrick Couillard’s Vampires in Chicago. But faced with two plays of such wildly different caliber, Michael Menendian’s staging does the Couillard one-act too much justice and the Durang not enough.

Vampires in Chicago has all the faults of a first play. Its plot never comes to life. Confusing, cluttered, and unfocused, it sags under the weight of its exposition. It seems like a weak Anne Rice rip-off or an extended episode of Tales From the Darkside. And, as revealed by the audience’s premature applause, it doesn’t know how to end.

The 178-year-old George (Paul Myers) has converted his apparent lover Keith (Wayne Kneeland) to the cult of Nosferatu. Keith, a cold-blooded killer who stalks the south side making random kills, befriends Paula (JoAnn Montemurro), an amoral vampire groupie who lets them park their coffins in her cellar. Playing Nancy to his Sid, Paula badly wants to be undead, even if it means that her mother, friends, and relatives must die. Oh well, she rationalizes, Aunt Toots was getting on anyway. George tricks Paula by offering her a fortune to exchange her life for immortality, then betrays her by trying to kill her. He’s thwarted by the predawn return of Keith, who gallantly rescues her, transforms her into a fellow creature of the night, and dispatches George through some solar torture.

George’s ordeal is nothing compared to that of watching this talky, tedious 70-minute play, which can’t make up its mind about its characters. Though Paula is clearly portrayed as scum, it’s George–admittedly a louse even by Dracula standards–who gets punished for trying to dispatch her. Did two incompatible versions of Vampires in Chicago get welded together without alteration?

Though graced with a cast far smarter than their lines, Menendian’s production huffs and puffs but can’t make a rambling script feel purposeful. Still, the players don’t succumb without a fight. Epicene and detached, Myers gives George a magisterial malevolence that, with the right material, could be downright creepy. Kneeland’s forthright Keith is honest enough to seem bored by his and George’s petty small talk. Montemurro actually milks Paula’s casual depravity for laughs (even if that means joking about getting rabies while George gives her the big bite)–but even this incongruity is testimony to the play’s lack of control over its clashing tones.

A much more reliable venture is Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, Durang’s slash-and-burn put-down of imperious nuns. The smug, self-righteous, literally hell-raising Sister Mary is a tyrant of the Catholic classroom, with a killer deadpan and an inflexible doctrine that would be funny if it didn’t do such harm. As relentless as she is ignorant (she knows the Bible only secondhand), Mary hectors the audience about obscenities such as limbo for the unconfessed and for people who ate meat on Friday before the Pope said it was OK.

Abhorring abortion, she sees the miracle of birth as a punishment for having sex without wanting to procreate. When asked if all prayers are answered, she slyly responds, “Yes–but often the answer is no.” As if she holds the keys to the kingdom, she keeps a personal list of those going to hell. Her latest victim, whom she trains by rewarding him with cookies for spouting nonsense, is an impressionable seven-year-old boy named Thomas (played with touchingly real innocence by Chris Creighton).

Sister Mary thrives on guilt and suffering. As she explains it, nobody’s misery, not even that of the boy she refused permission to go to the bathroom even though his bladder was bursting, can stack up against Christ’s three hours on the cross. She says that in the shadow of that sacrifice they ought to be ashamed to complain. Better to shut up and suffer, and wait for a reward in a distant afterlife. Asked to explain why an all-powerful God lets evil flourish and good people suffer, she doesn’t deign to reply.

Sister Mary is confronted with four former pupils she left perversely unprepared for the real world–an adulteress, a gay man, an alcoholic, and a woman who had an abortion. Of course their all-too-human pleas for understanding fall on deaf ears. They might have been her nemesis; instead the play ends violently with Sister Mary in the ascendant.

Unfortunately, Durang didn’t know when he’d made his case, and his play now seems much more strident, whining, and sophomoric than it did over a decade ago–too naively indignant at the sort of Catholic absurdities, contradictions, and hypocrisy that Voltaire exposed long ago. It’s as if Durang had a dirty-laundry list of grievances and checked each off as he went along. But Sister Mary is hardly the only person who can be blamed for her students’ far from exclusively Catholic troubles.

Part of the problem could also be Robin Baber’s Mary. Baber certainly suggests the unctuous complacency that surrounds this nun, and she throws her weight around wonderfully. But Baber doesn’t snap Durang’s whip hard enough or build her character’s rage at being contradicted by impudent former students. And the students never suggest the menace that could make us hope that Sister Mary will receive her comeuppance. After they arrive to make their obvious denunciations, the play loses momentum and energy, and even the frenetic ending can’t lift it from this torpor.