Penguins, the new late-night serial at Annex, is a parody with too few parodists involved on stage.
Great idea, though: Spoof the gleeful gratuity of cable TV dramas with a show that imagines what’s really going on between nuns and priests—in this case, a power struggle that begins when Sister Bernadette (Lisa Viertel) tells Father Jones (Chris Dietz), “We aren’t your bitches anymore.” Smug in her extortion scheme to claim (among other things) a larger cut of the church bingo money, Bernadette exits and Jones puts a hit out on her by picking up the telephone and muttering, “Give me the Organist.”
Okay, that’s funny. So is the notion of everybody in the Catholic church dropping their quaint Irish brogues to swear like the Sopranos. And you’ve got to give at least a few points to any show with a character named Sister Wu Tang. But, then, filthy lines and funny names are what’s expected from playwright Scot Augustson, who offers them by the mouthful in his popular Sgt. Rigsby silhouette plays. (I’m still not over the charms of a whorish hen called Chicken Jenny, who’ll return in Teensploitation, Augustson’s latest stick puppet extravaganza, in the fall.)
The Rigsby romps, though, also offer a quintet of the city’s funniest performers creating multiple characters using only their voices to accompany the shadow play. Of Penguin‘s eight-person ensemble, only Viertel—who digs down into a wickedly guttural Mafioso laugh—and Teri Lazzara (playing both Bernadette’s mother and another of the sisters) have the knack to know which lines to hit and which to toss off. If director Bret Fetzer told everybody else how best to handle the humor of Roman Catholics cussing, well, nobody listened. It’s free-for-all time at the “fuck” factory. The company slugs away at every bit of business with a happy but sloppy energy that forces you to figure out for yourself whether each individual line is worth a hoot. Nobody should be stopping to think during a comedy featuring gun-toting nuns.
The ensemble did pay attention, at least, to Fetzer’s instructions for the play’s clever “opening credits”, which blossom out of the pre-show music (the Doobie Brothers singing “Jesus Is Just Alright”) into a choreographed sequence featuring flashlight close-ups of the actors’ menacing mugs before a Friends-like boogie.
This is only Episode 1: Heaven the Hard Way. Maybe with time—and a very full, drunk, and forgiving crowd—the actors will learn how to earn the laughs the show deserves. But a recast might be a quicker way to get Penguins to take off.