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Nun Funny 

by Michael Bowen & r & Kathie Doyle-Lipe and Jean Hardie are the heart and soul of Nunsense II at CenterStage (through Nov. 18). Given all her bumps, grinds and shimmies in the concluding number ("big finish now, sisters -- gotta say 'Amen!'"), Hardie can still bring it in a soul number.

If you're looking to revisit the glories of Nunsense (1991, 2003) and Nunsense II (1993-94) at the Civic, the current production of the sequel at CenterStage will get you part of the way there. But first you'll have to sit through a lot of missed comedic opportunities and disconnected musical numbers.

While the other three nuns in this show are OK, they're saddled with an uninspired plot framework (a talent show), and jokes that cross the line from silly fun to silly dumb.

But enough carping; let's get back to Hardie and Doyle-Lipe. With her crabby glare, her clicker and her cane, Hardie's Superior sister is one Mother who expects to be obeyed. (Piano and drums pound out "Hail to the Chief" when she first arrives.) When the nun-and-ballerina-wanna-be, Sister Mary Leo (Karla Morrison) overdoes her pirouette thing, Hardie silences her with a bellowing "Don't give it away!" that evokes the mean-spirited rage of unsatisfied Catholic nuns in schoolyards across America.

But it's the burlesque bits that we could watch over and over: Hardie doing chorus kicks; Hardie praying for divine help as she lowers herself gingerly into the splits; Hardie doing hip thrusts and then whipping the ground with her red feather boa. First she makes women of a certain age (like herself) groan with trepidation; then she makes them grin with self-satisfaction. Watching Jean Hardie mimicking a Thigh Master workout (even in just a throwaway bit) or belting it out in the aforementioned soul tune -- well, that's just comedic gold, folks.

Doyle-Lipe is right there with her. With her bespectacled little head bobbing, her Sister Mary Hubert gets blocked out of chorus lines. She ends up in comic arguments with Hardie's bosom. When the two of them get tipsy, Doyle-Lipe has a scene-stealing get-every-last-drop bit; when Hardie bonks her on the head, she's a vibrating, out-of-control dwarf. She sits on top of big speakers and crosses her legs to the most grandiose extent allowed by law. And local Nunsense fans will have gleeful memories of Doyle-Lipe doing somersaults and the splits and ending up with her habit up over her head. It's still every bit as funny as it was years ago. The final image of Act One is of Doyle-Lipe getting hauled offstage while insisting on drunkenly shouting one last chorus of a Judy Garland song. Hilarious.

Too bad most of the show wasn't ... even close to hilarious. A lot of the problem is Dan Goggin's script. The original had the narrative drive -- retold here -- of the Little Sisters of Hoboken needing to stuff a few inconvenient dead bodies into some freezers in order to win a sweepstakes windfall and keep their convent going. But The Second Coming needed a framework, too. Goggin's solution? A talent show. The sisters, in other words, are going to display what they can do. In random order. Oh, there's some Nunsense about a talent scout and some pesky Franciscans -- but mostly, it's just a talent show. And with about as much narrative coherence.

As the best of the supporting cast, Katie-Sarah Phillips gets the set-piece gags: Sister Mary Amnesia does bingo, Sister Mary Amnesia pretends to be a country-Western star, Sister Mary Amnesia bickers with a Muppet. They're sporadically funny, but Phillips needs to go all-out -- all the way to really frightened, really schizophrenic, really flamboyant -- for these bits to take off.

On the bright side, director Troy Nickerson allows his singers to shine: Numbers at the top of each act -- "Jubilate Deo" and "Kyrie Eleison" -- demonstrate that these are five sisters who can harmonize.

On the grim side, there are jokes about "nuntalentophobia," a fear of nuns with talent. (I crack worse jokes myself every day, but I'm not asking people to pay to hear them.)

At one point, Sr. Robert Anne (Angela M. Snyder) sits down to sing a quiet, sentimental song. Who knows why? I'm sure it was explained -- something to do with the talent show -- but it was lost on me. No matter. Let's just get back to Hardie and Doyle-Lipe.

For much of Nunsense II, you'll shift uncomfortably in your seat, glance at your watch and then realize that your grin feels frozen. Sketch comedy is never continuously funny; there are always going to be dead spots. But there are so many head-scratching moments in this show that one shudders to think of what Goggin's three other sequels are like. Meanwhile, thanks very much for all the laughs, sisters -- we don't need to see any more just now. We'll call you.

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