ARTS & CULTURE
Actresses transcend material in look at all things Catholic
by Robert Nesti
Tuesday, January 7, 2003
``Beyond Belief, or Catholics Are People Too!'' by Jack Neary, presented by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., through Feb. 1.
Gert, Alma and Marjorie are the ``Golden Girls'' - Boston style. They are the best thing about ``Beyond Belief, or Catholics Are People Too!'' Jack Neary's crowd-pleasing look at Catholicism is having its world premiere by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
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In a series of sketches, these retirees spend their days sitting on Alma's front porch, where they discuss a variety of sexually related topics, from President Clinton's indiscretions to ramifications of the recent crisis in the church.
Some may remember the trio from the 1999 Boston Theater Marathon of Ten-Minute Plays, where they were enthusiastically received in a playlet called ``Oral Report,'' in which they discussed Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. That sketch opens this piece.
As in the formulaic writing of television sitcoms, each reverts to type: Gert (Bobbie Steinbach) is the no-nonsense one, Alma (Ellen Colton) is dimwitted and Marjorie (Cheryl McMahon) is practical. The comedy largely comes from Gert's sharp one-liners and Alma's naivete on sexual matters.
That is, until the final scene. In his short program notes, Neary says it would be impossible to write a play about Catholics without addressing the recent crisis, and he takes on the controversy by examining how the sensitive subject of pedophilia affects the lives of these three women.
Though the writing may seem shameless in the way it manipulates the audience to get a particular emotional response, it is nevertheless effective, largely due to the deeply touching performance of Colton as a woman wrestling with a long-hidden secret. As the memories strip away her defenses, Colton gives her character a depth of feeling unrealized in the broad and repetitive skits that came before. Here, the three women feel part of a play that Neary has yet to fully realize, and the actresses rise to a level that transcends the material itself.
Otherwise, though, this entertainment shrewdly, if coyly, lampoons Catholics' repressed attitudes about sexuality.
In addition to these women arguing about homosexuality and the meaning of the term ``menage a trois,'' there is a skit about a randy young man whose sexual drive is stilled when he becomes ``Catholic Man,'' a superhero who believes in chastity (amongst other virtues).
There's also a skit in which Santa Claus visits a confessional to seek forgiveness for having ``sinned'' with a cookie-bearing mom on Christmas Eve.
In these skits, performers Lindsay Joy, Christopher Loftus and Robert Saoud are right on target.
Neary's direction is sharp throughout, and he has found an ideal trio of local actresses for his Golden Girls: Steinbach makes a delightfully tart Gert, McMahon is master of the deadpan expression as Marjorie, and Colton brings pathos to what easily could have been the most stereotypical character.
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston presents ``Beyond Belief'' through Feb. 1.