The Actor’s Nightmare and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You

By Christopher Durang
Directed by Doug Howe
The Gallery Players (
199 14th Street, Brooklyn, NY (212/352-3101)
Equity showcase (closes Sept. 24)
Review by Byrne Harrison

The Gallery Players kicked off their 40th season by bringing back the double bill of The Actor’s Nightmare and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You by Christopher Durang.

The Actor’s Nightmare finds hapless George thrust on stage to understudy a role. The only problem is he’s not an actor, he doesn’t know the lines, and the play keeps shifting from Coward to Shakespeare to Beckett, finally ending up with George losing his head in A Man for All Seasons.

B. Brian Argotsinger played George with the right mixture of bemusement, panic, and desperation. Laura Heidinger, Sarah Beth-Lee Williams, Nat Cassidy, and Gael Schaefer, as stage legends Sarah Siddons, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving and stage manager Meg, were amusing as they dealt with the fumbling George and attempted to cover his missed lines and ad libs.

The play takes swats at actors, the theatre, Catholicism and people who hide in mediocre lives, but it never really delivers any blows. Though amusing, it is ultimately a trifle.

Sister Mary, on the other hand, lands several solid punches, most of them directly on the inflexible dogma of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, in these days where the newspapers are full of scandals involving the Church, this play doesn’t have the same savage bite that it did when it premiered.

Sister Mary, a nun who teaches at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, lectures the audience on Catholicism with the help of her 7-year-old helper, Thomas. A group of her former students interrupt her lecture; they have come back to humiliate her for the bullying they received from her as students. She finds out that one is gay, two have gotten abortions, and the fourth is a suicidal, alcoholic wife-beater (which is, of course, acceptable in her eyes since these are merely venial sins). After a gut-wrenching monolog on how Sister Mary ruined her life, Diane, the ringleader of the group, attempts to get some revenge, but Sister Mary turns the tables on her and dispenses her own appalling brand of divine justice.

Schaefer, as Sister Mary, did a marvelous job of transitioning from a sweet, but slightly addled character at the start of the play, into a cruel and monstrous bully at the end. Williams’s Diane was very moving as she explained what she’d suffered and how she’d been betrayed. And while the characters of Gary, Philomena, and Aloysius, played by Argotsinger, Heidinger, and Cassidy are very two-dimensional, the actors brought them to life as best they could. The final member of the ensemble, Austin Zambito-Valente, who played Thomas, Sister Mary’s little helper, did an excellent job as a boy who seems sweet and perfect even as he is slowly being warped by the Sister’s beliefs.

As is expected from The Gallery Players, this was a solid production. Director Doug Howe kept the shows moving at a brisk and amusing pace. Sets (Joe Trainor), costumes (Jessa-Raye Court), lighting (Travis I. Walker), and sound (Steve Sabaugh) were all well-done. The acting was excellent. And though Durang’s plays may not have the same shock value that they once did, they still amused.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2006 Byrne Harrison