A Christmas Story. Elf. Love, Actually. David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries. These are modern Christmas classics. And to them you can now add Bad Habits, a world premiere at Santa Monica’s Ruskin Group Theatre.
A bishop (Orson Bean) who’s forgotten the lesson of humility wants to raze a convent so he can build a cathedral and name it after himself. Mother Superior (Bean’s real-life wife, Alley Mills) fights for the building and her flock of four. The nuns are schoolteachers planning a Christmas pageant and hoping for a miracle; their housing concerns get shoved to the side when a troubled former student, Maria (a radiant Kelsey Griswold), shows up.
It’s raucous and rollicking fun for all but the most devout, who might have trouble with a group of potty-mouthed, blasphemous nuns. The almost nonstop hilarity sits atop a foundation of existential, emotional, faith and financial crises. Oh, and there’s plenty of holiday music, from “Jingle Bells” to a deeply stirring “Ave Maria.”
Each character has a chance to shine, with mini solo shows that spotlight individual talents and add audience participation to an already rich mix of entertainment. Bean in particular is a marvel – at 91 he not only acts and performs physical comedy but does a stand-up routine that left several audience members trying to suppress laughter long after he’d left the stage. Lee Garlington as Sister Maggie tears up the place with attitude and raunchy humor. Jacquelynne Fontaine (Sister Claire) is a musical talent. Jacquelin Lorraine Schofield (Sister Anthea) combines musical and comedic riffs. Mouchette van Helsdingen (Sister Helga) and Mills show off their acting chops.
Of course the parallels to Sister Act are impossible to miss, but the storyline heads in very different directions. The movie is quickly forgotten as the audience becomes pupils and parents, congregation members and believers. There are hilarious references, including to The Crucible, The Sound of Music and the Holy Trinity. This isn’t for the righteous nor the kiddies.
Writer Steve Mazur, whose extensive writing credits include numerous hit movies, has created fully drawn characters and a Catholic world brilliantly positioned between past and future. The set, by Brad Bentz, ideally frames the action. The opening scene could easily be cut but otherwise the show is tight and fulfilling on multiple levels.
Bad Habits is playing through Jan. 26, 2019 (no performances Nov 29 – 30) at the Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave. at the Santa Monica Airport. Free parking in the theater’s lot. Tickets are $20-35 and are available here.