My parents, being good people, raised me to believe that if you couldn’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. Of course, they couldn’t have imagined I’d wind up a reviewer, nor that I’d wind up having to devote 700 words to Meshuggah-Nuns!
What’s the point, you might ask, in attacking this harmless piece of fluff? Creator Dan Goggin’s musical-comedy – the fifth of, so far, six productions in Goggin’s lucrative Nunsense series – wants only to amuse. Characters proudly assert that their show has no plot to speak of, and what storyline there is allows for the musical to feel a little tacky and thrown-together. (While on an interfaith cruise, Goggin’s familiar quartet of sisters serve, last minute, as the passengers’ stage entertainment after the ship’s Fiddler on the Roof cast falls ill.) It’s not like Meshuggah-Nuns! requires much polish; it’s supposed to look like the characters are making it up as they go. The show, currently running at the Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, is a compilation of lighthearted jokes, skits, and musical numbers, and doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest. What’s there to complain about?
Just about everything, actually.
Allow me, though, to make clear that few of the show’s many weaknesses are the fault of Circa ’21’s presentation of it. Moya Campbell, Noreen Foster, Jean Liuzzi, and Marcia Sofley have lovely voices and perform their gags about as well as could be imagined, and John Payonk, playing the actor who should have been Tevye, has a powerful baritone and reveals an often buoyant spirit. The actors hit their marks, and Tony Parise directs their shtick with appropriate shtickiness.
But what, in heaven’s name, are they supposed to do with material this terrible? Mushuggah-Nuns! isn’t just a bad show, it’s an infuriating one, because Goggin appears to have no interests in the series outside of financial ones; if he did, the show wouldn’t be so unimaginative, or so lazy. (You don’t see characters on the stage; you see dollar signs.) Scene for scene, number for number, Meshuggah-Nuns! doesn’t vary from Goggin’s original Nunsense formula one iota, and by now his jokes have gotten so stale – Nuns swear! Nuns wear brassieres! Nuns are funny! – that the show, for some of us, becomes torturous to sit through. (The biggest laugh I got from Mushuggah-Nuns! came during its most ostensibly serious moment, when Robert Anne and “Tevye” launch into a hysterically sappy pop duet.) If you’ve seen even one of the previous Nunsense installments, watching this production can feel like a particularly unfunny case of déjà vu.
You can’t ignore the fact that this is a completely uninspired sequel, because Goggin is continually reminding us that it’s a completely uninspired sequel. He brings up story points from previous installments –Amnesia’s country-western history, Robert Anne’s tough-gal past – as if the mere mention of them will elicit delighted applause, and his songs are such bastardizations of numbers previously performed by the same characters that Goggin would probably be legally entitled to slap a copyright-infringement lawsuit against himself. Audiences who haven’t before seen a Nunsense show will obviously have less to kvetch about than those of us who have, but even they should notice that the songs, nearly every one employing an achingly predictable A-B-C-B rhyme scheme, are second-rate and the jokes third- or fourth-, and that several routines here – Amnesia’s Act I magic act, Act II’s show-killing sing-a-long – go on for-freaking-ever.
On Friday night, at least, the show was making people laugh. But, to my ears, it was perfunctory laughter, like when a friend tells you an unamusing joke and you’re too polite not to chuckle. There was no joy in it; it was as if the audience was chortling merely because they recognized the punchlines as punchlines. (Not that, with Goggin’s elbow-in-the-ribs obviousness, anyone could miss them.) I hate Meshuggah-Nuns! because, like a lame sitcom with a braying laugh track, it’s making some in the audience believe that its profoundly unfunny material is hilarious – if it wasn’t, why would people be cackling? In its insidiously “harmless” way, Meshuggah-Nuns! embodies everything that’s wrong with popular entertainment today; Goggin could be saying, “This is crap, but audiences keep lining up for it, so they get what they deserve.” I, for one, think we deserve better.