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Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and The Actor's Nightmare, Morgan-Wixson Theatre

05/27/2010 04:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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What's the surprising thing about Christopher Durang's two one-act plays that Jeremy Aluma directed for the Morgan-Wixson Theatre is not their nihilistic plot twists. No, it's that the satire doesn't feel like satire, it feels like documentary. Both productions share a common premise: we receive scripts at birth and life then is a matter of how you play the role. You can either follow a particular script (the Catholic dogma of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You) or else sample various ones (snippets of text from classical and modern drama of The Actor's Nightmare).

Both ensemble efforts excel. The pedantic and draconian hellfire of Sister Mary Ignatius (Joanna Churgin) ensures that we her audience will not only listen to what she says (The Word is the word), but we will believe it as well. With dictatorial charisma and a Wicked Witch of the West righteous voice, she will broach no insubordination, a fact made hilariously apparent in the character of Thomas (who's actually a young girl, the angelically precocious Brighid Fleming), who follows each command with the dewy brainwashed grin of an embryonic Scientologist. Four alum, on hand to stage a nativity pageant, carp on how mealy-mouthed Mary's ham-fisted direction of the Catholic script led to their collective woe. As a winsomely feral woman who's had two abortions (one after a rape), Sam Bianchini's Diane Symonds nails the resigned whatever of a woman that a benevolent-or-not God forsook. Genevieve La Court's Philomena Rostrovich goes for a more catatonic tone as a preggers-though-unmarried wallflower. Hunter Davis's Gary Sullavan is a hoot (a distraught hoot but a hoot nonetheless) as - gasp! - a gay man whose partner - double gasp! - is also one of Sister Mary's graceless spawn. And Justin Sanders aces the role of Aloysius Benheim, whose sin of alcoholism ranks relatively low on the Scale of Sin but which nonetheless earns him the Sister's eternal scorn.

The second production describes, with chilling relevance (this could be us!) how scriptless, directorless George Spelvin (Johnny Arena), a non-actor, gets thrown on stage with no knowledge of what play he's in. In an aside to the audience, he tells us that as an adult he lost his faith (i.e., lost his lines) and so, spiritually, existentially, he has to wing it. In a situation eerily similar to that of Gregor Samsa in Kafka's "Metamorphosis," George woke up one day, thought he was accountant and now, for no apparent reason, got mistaken as an understudy for Edwin Booth (brother of Lincoln's assassin). George must muddle through fragments of Private Lives, a Beckettesque collage, Hamlet, and A Man For All Seasons. Though lost at first, he proves to be a quick learner, except he then gets jerked en media res into another story, a situation which, when you think about it, suggests an apt metaphor for a secular life. While Arena's George provided a Felix Unger-esque dweeb with whom we could identify, Julie Civiello, Kat Primeau, Amir Levi and Angie Light were engagingly oblique, sweetly nonchalant, and miraculously in synch in this outrageous, off-beat production.

Performances are 8pm, Friday and Saturday, 2pm Sunday. The show runs until May 29. Tickets are $15-18. The Theatre is located at 2627 Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica. For more information call (310) 828-7519 or visit www.morgan-wixson.org.