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The City Journals

Nunsense at The Ziegfeld Theater

Sep 23, 2016 09:05AM ● By Bryan Scott

Nunsense, playing now at The Ziegfeld Theater

By Cassidy Ward

It’s been said that the theater can be a spiritual experience, but it’s still shocking to walk into one and be greeted by a superfluity of nuns, however fictional in nature they may be. To further add to the confusion, upon entering the auditorium, attendees are greeted with set pieces befitting an amateur production of Grease. Such was the nature of the opening experience of The Ziegfeld Theater’s run of Nunsense. 

Through a series of musical numbers and interludes, the sisters reveal the tragic tale that led to their being there, performing for us in the auditorium of the local high school. Not long ago, the Little Sisters of Hoboken maintained a leper colony in the south of France but due to a culinary mishap most of their numbers had perished, leaving only a few to carry on their mission. As a result, Mother Superior began manufacturing greeting cards (more on that later) to raise funds to pay for the burial of their many dead. While the line was very successful, the sisters ran out money after some questionable purchases, namely a flat screen TV, and were left with the bodies of four of their sisters being held temporarily in the parishes deep freezer. The intent of the evening’s events was to raise the money needed to bury those remaining sisters before the health inspector shut them down.

What ensues is a blend of crass piety so delicious it rivals even the lethal concoctions of Sister Julia, which is to say it’s to die for. The interplay between the five central nuns is biting in its comedy. Each character has a well-defined personality, ensuring that none of them fall into stereotype and everyone has something to offer. Though it would be sinful to suggest anything other than that Melissa Burke, as Sister Mary Amnesia, stole the show. 

At one point, during a break from songs, Burke engaged the audience in a bit of trivia, asking one audience member specific details about their tragic tale. When a correct answer was offered the lucky winner was called forward and given a greeting card which read “The Motorist’s Prayer: I am a Catholic, in case of emergency call a priest.” When asked, the audience member revealed they weren’t in fact Catholic and had no religious affiliation. In a brilliant bit of improv, Sister Mary Amnesia suggested with wide eyed innocence that they cross out the words “Catholic” and “Priest” and replace them with “nothing” and “ambulance.” 

Later, Sister Mary Amnesia remarked on her confidence that through her faith and good will she was certain of the conversion of at least one person in the audience before the night was out, adding “Maybe it will be you, my friend who is a nothing.” This is merely one example of how well not only Burke, but the entire cast, knew their characters and could play them seamlessly, even off script.

As the play unfolds, audiences are treated not only to a series of entertaining and well-performed musical numbers, but to a series of startling events, most importantly the discovery of the bodies by the health inspector and the sudden return of memory for Sister Mary Amnesia. The second of these events couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. In perhaps the most heavy handed example of deus ex machina ever seen in theater, Sister Mary Amnesia remembers her true identity along with the fact that she was the winner of a lottery and recipient of a large sum of money, which she uses to dispose of the final bodies before what remains of their convent is disbanded. Though, considering the close relationship held between members of the clergy and God himself, it is perhaps excusable that he is such an omnipresent ghost in the machine. 

Though, the course of events in Nunsense isn’t really what’s important, what makes the play worth the cost of admission and time is the characters and their incredibly competent portrayals. The cast is sparse and the set more so, carried solely on the shoulders of the players. Each of them has a lot of weight to carry and they do it with grace, style, and just the right amount of spirit.

Nunsense is running at the The Ziegfeld Theater through October 1, for more information on this and future shows, visit