This nun can really work a room.
Nonie Newton-Riley, the Second City-trained actress starring in the Catholic-themed comedy "Late Nite Catechism 3: Til Death Do Us Part," is not an actual nun. But you would hardly know that from the visceral reactions of the crowd of former Catholic school students, lapsed churchgoers and the odd pagan who attended the show's opening in Shea's Smith Theatre.
Newton-Riley, who has been performing this role in various versions of the "Catechism" franchise for 17 years, has connected to the universal DNA of the habit-wearing disciplinarian. It is a stock character, but one familiar to generations of Catholics raised on Saturday catechism classes, rapped on the knuckles with ancient rulers or otherwise chastised by put-upon women clothed in what Newton-Riley described as "50 pounds of gabardine."
It is the third installment of Maripat Donovan's popular "Late Nite Catechism" series, which thrives on the nostalgia of aging Catholics yearning for reminders of their youth. Mix that with a gifted improvisational comic and a little borscht belt humor and it's hard to go wrong.
"Some of you are here because you're dating and you're looking forward to marriage," Sister says at the start of the production. "Some of you are here because you're married and you're looking forward to death."
From that point on, the audience is hooked as Newton-Riley delivers a thoroughly enjoyable night of low-brow interactive theater and improvisational comedy. She scolds audience members for wearing baseball caps to the theater, for putting their hands in their pockets while answering questions -- "No good can come of that," she cracks -- and for being unable to recall the seven sacraments off the tops of their heads.
There are few pleasures as simple as watching a great comedian work a room, and Newton-Riley manipulates us like rosary beads. She shuts down overenthusiastic audience members with well-timed quips, encourages shy theatergoers to come just far enough out of their shells to earn a laugh and instantly snaps back control when the narrative starts to run away from her.
There may not be anything deeply sophisticated about the material, and sure, the show leans on calculated moments of recognition hard-wired to our nostalgia centers in a way that can sometimes feel cheap. But in the hands of this performer, those moments chafe less than they might have because their delivery seems so genuine.
As someone with plenty of Catholic education under my belt, it's tough for me to say how well the show might register with someone unfamiliar with the faith. But it seems the themes of "Late Nite Catechism" are universal enough to register with anyone. Surely, the comedy is.
3 stars (out of four)
"Late Nite Catechism 3: 'Til Death Do Us Part" runs through Nov. 12 in Shea's Smith Theatre, 646 Main St. Tickets are $39. Call 847-0850 or visit www.sheas.org.