All the Irish schoolgirls in "Once a Catholic," an extremely broad and loose-jointed English comedy about sex and religion that came to the Hayes last night, are named Mary. But it is the quiet one, Mary Mooney, we begin to take more and more notice of. In a stunningly lovely performance by Mia Dillon, Mary Mooney, takes us by surprise in a climactic scene and makes us catch our breath, so that we leave the theater savoring the occasion almost in spite of our better judgment.
For most of the time, author Mary O'Malley relies on obvious variations on a common theme, the exercise of animal spirits in a strict society. "Once a Catholic" takes place in and around the Convent of Our Lady of Fatima, a Catholic school for girls in the Harlesden section of London, and the time covered is 1956-57, just prior to the mother church's relaxation of the severity of such institutions.
In a series of brief episodes, broadly written and played, the idiotically austere behavior and teachings of the nuns - Mother Peter, Mother Basil and Mother Thomas Aquinas have taken the names of their favorite saints - is contrasted with the girls' sexual appetites and occasional forays, and their often smutty talk. Were television a bit more permissive and the language cleaned up, "Once a Catholic" could provide the substance for an entire sitcom series. It comes that close.
Father Mullarkey, the presiding priest, places a priority on his supply of Guinness above hearing confessions of mortal sin, and while he spouts dogma during school hours, he is relaxed and genial in his quarters. For good measure, there is the school's elderly and eccentric Italian singing teacher, who is preparing the girls for a spring production of "The Mikado" (Mooney is cast as Nanki Poo) Mr. Emanuelli, as he is called, somewhat jarringly raises the subject of his homosexuality to emphasize the importance of love to Mary in an unnecessary scene - and there are the comic boyfriends of Mary McGinty, a pretty but dumb blonde, and Mary Gallagher, a shrewd brunette.
The evening has its dull stretches, and I'm afraid that its star, Rachel Roberts, fine and funny as she is as Mother Peter, is trapped in one of the dullest, an account of the history of a shrine the girls are going to visit on a pilgrimage (all but poor Mooney, whose family can't afford the costs).
Peggy Cass as Mother Basil and Pat Falkenhain as Mother Thomas Aquinas, the school's Mother Superior, turn in sound comedy performances. Roy Poole is an entertaining, and largely believable, Father Mullarkey; Joseph Leon is amusing as the brusque and amoral music teacher; and Bill Buell and Charley Long - especially the former, a Church of England adherent sporting an electric blue jacket and an outrageous pompadour - are laughable caricatures as the boyfriends, Derek and Cuthbert, of McGinty and Gallagher, in that order.
The girls are nicely differentiated in a well-cast production, with Terry Calloway and Virginia Hut, the latter in her Broadway debut, especially effective as McGinty and Gallagher.
Mike Ockrent, who also staged the slightly different London version - among other things, the final blackout has been wisely altered - has staged the episodic work as broadly and speedily as possible, aided in this latter respect by the quick scene changes, most of them accomplished by the girls' shifting of furniture in dimouts.
"Once a Catholic" is a rather untidy near-farce, but its sense of humor and good-naturedness are appealing and, with the role played so superbly by Dillon, the evening is, finally, unexpectedly touching.
It must be all kinds of hell to be a young Catholic girl growing up in a Convent School in London. At least that is the proposition of Mary O'Malley's play Once a Catholic, which opened at the Helen Hayes Theater last night.
The state of bigotry, ignorance and narrow-mindedness in which these poor girls are brought up, would to the outsider seem wildly exaggerated for the sake of comedy. But at least two Convent-educated London women have assured me that Miss O'Malley's tale is virtually a documentary. Gosh!
Miss O'Malley herself was in her time grist to this Christian mill, and as she seems remarkably literate, it is quite obviously possible to get some kind of education in these institutions.
Her play was successful a few years ago at the Royal Court Theater, and subsequently transferred for a commercial run in London's West End, where it is still playing to large houses. This New York production seems very similar to the London staging, although the abrasively irreligious ending of, the original has been adapted for New York's presumably more susceptible tastes.
It is a curious play because it is scarcely a play at all, but rather a series of, presumably, autobiographical vignettes, snapshots from an education.
There is no real story, no real conflict and hardly any characters. It is simply a string of funny anecdotes about life in a Convent School laid end to end.
Some of them are mildly amusing - particularly should you happen to be an English girl who had been to a North London Convent School yourself. In such circumstances you would identify with the show very closely. For the rest of us this clash between Nuns who are irredeemably (in everything but the Catholic sense) stupid and unsympathetic and schoolgirls trying to emerge sexually in a cold climate, lacks human interest.
The play is entirely about the sexual oppression of young Catholic girls. One could almost imagine the playwright wrote it on the advice of her pyschiatrist, to get it all out into the open.
The juxtaposition of the guilt of sex and the belief in Catholic dogma, is doubtless splendid for Catholics to get out of their system, or keep in their system as they please, but for the rest of humanity it lacks in drama.
There is just so much humor that can be extracted from such scenes as Catholic teenage girls cramming into a lavatory to read dirty passages they have marked in the Bible - and it is not much at that. A priest hearing a girl's confession over supper, while anxious to get on his bicycle to buy some more Guinness, has a touch of truth to it, but most of the scenes are more like revue sketches than anything else.
Miss O'Malley can write dialogue. Her scenes between a couple of eager young Catholic hedonists (he thinks he has a vocation for the priesthood and she sees herself as a science teacher) are neatly written, and her principal ugly duckling's fall from grace with her friend's boyfriend has an endearing clumsiness.
William Ritman's scenery has the right sanctimonious air to it, and Mike Ockrent's direction moves appropriately fast in its efforts to convince us that the play is going somewhere. The play is also blessed - if that is the word for the circumstances - with a very able and convincing cast.
Rachel Roberts, looking as though she sniffed vinegar in times of stress and wore hair-lined undergarments for the penance of her soul, is quite wonderfully funny as a particularly blind and nasty Nun, and she gets smug and sisterly support from her fellow viragos, Peggy Cass and Pat Falkenhain.
As the most important of the schoolgirls whose sex education we are invited to observe, both Terry Calloway as a girl whose self-assurance no school could dent, and Virginia Hut as a tentative but surviving blonde are sweetly memorable, and I liked the tearaway style of Charley Lang as the seducer with a vocation.
Best of all was the woebegone Mia Dillon, one of God's victims, with never enough money, never enough friends, and only a furtive grasp on the realities of life. Miss Dillon looking like a beautiful squashed cabbage leaf brought a sense of heart to an otherwise steely enterprise.
"Once a Catholic" is twice a bore. Mary O'Malley's British comedy, now installed at the Helen Hayes, is neither play nor parody but a halfhearted, structurally haphazard, stab at making total recall somewhat funny. I say "somewhat" funny because, as Miss O'Malley remembers the obtuse nuns and automated priests and woefully undereducated fellow-pupils of her childhood, she's never quite certain how much of a comic strip she intends her satirical salute to the grim convent school days of 1952 to be. She is, I think, a bit tone-deaf.
Almost the first words spoken are unsettling. Rachel Roberts, who is starred as a wimpled Mother Peter in a role that never does take center stage, has assembled her charges for a morning session after mass. It is the custom at Our Lady of Fatima's to open the class-hour with a prayer. Miss Roberts, crucifix on her bosom and rosary beads swinging at her side, says the prayer. But she says it with the slapdash indifference, and at the express-train speed, normally used by 5-year-olds getting past grace and into the meat loaf. There's a nervous half-laugh from out front. Nervous because the joke seems backward. The girls in their smocks would say the prayer this way, of course. But devout Mother Peter?
And there's no doubt Mother Peter is devout. She's at once warning her charges not to pray to St. Peter because St. Peter is her saint, more or less private property ("I'm mad about him!") They are, in addition, to wear Our Lady of Fatima "knickers" (blue bloomers is what they are) under their dresses at all times. Especially because there's a man on the premises (she stretches man into a dire three syllables) wheeling a barrow through the garden. Sexual protection at all costs.
As the memoir moves on into sex, our uncertainty is compounded. The teenagers, all of whom are named Mary (though no point of this is made in the text), are a thumpingly ignorant lot. Although Mother Basil (Peggy Cass, and occasionally amusing on her own) is most explicit as she disembowels a female rat in biology class, matter-of-factly pointing out the vagina and urethra, none of those attending seems to have any notion of how male sperm manages to penetrate the area.
If they ask, they run into the convent version of Catch-22. They are impertinent, if not downright dirty-minded, for asking. They are also ignoramuses for not knowing. The poor things are scolded either way, especially wistful Mia Dillon, who is as intelligent as she is naïve and would really like to know. When the girls are off on their own, swapping unreliable information, they feel it necessary to hide in a toilet (three to a stall) while posing over a juicy passage in the Bible. (Need I say they're caught out by their scandalized mentors?)
At the same time, the youngsters have an oddly up-to-date vocabulary, using words that not only suggests they've been going to the more recent Off Broadway plays, but also words that in themselves pretty well describe the activities they're so vague about.
When they are with their freethinking boyfriends away from the premises, they seem to know quite enough to cope. Indeed, the lass with the most wayward tongue arrives at one of the less likely street-corner scenes in recent theatrical memory. She's apparently been giving reasonable satisfaction to her Derek, whose cockatoo hair-styling hints that he's been modeling himself on Elvis Presley, but she's just this very day learned from Father Mularkey (note the name) that "passionate kisses are all mortal sins." She is torn between her habits and this freshly staggering precept, and I couldn't bring myself to believe a fretful minute of it.
The boys? Oddly out-of-tune, too. Worldly wise Cuthbert, jacket lined with yellow piping and pint-bottle ever at the ready, takes a hearty swig while seriously (I guess) wondering if he has a vocation for the priesthood. About to pop into bed with his own willing chick, he reminds himself that he must rise early to serve mass. His partner, I might mention, asks, "Will you still respect me in the morning?" while agreeing to wash the used sheets.
As comedy, very edgy, iffy, wan. Bordering now and again on outright burlesque (Bill Buell's adenoidal Derek, open mouth sagging forward and every limb rotating in its socket) and then slipping back toward something closer to harsh reality, the comedy of the occasion becomes eel-slippery, untrappable.
As serious criticism of a rigorous system that did once exist (and may still, in some odd corners of our variegated world), the play is unfocused in much the same way. It really has no dramatic core: it simply leaps from vignette to vignette as the split-second study hall and into forbidden territory beyond the walls. The vignettes do little more than repeat the opening admonitions. If the play is meant to have a center, it no doubt belongs to the talented Miss Dillon, waiflike, wide-eyed, willing to have a try at a sexual bash on a sofa but - in the end - determined to become a nun herself. This last-minute turnaround, undoubtedly meant to be touching, is simply too unexpected, too much undercut by the wavering humors around it, to function well.
As for Roy Poole's priest, we're looking at unrelated bits and pieces of character again. Sometimes spouting fire and brimstone, sometimes whimsically swinging his legs from his perch on a classroom desk, sometimes rushing from an indelicate question ("What is sodomy, Father?") in vaudeville panic, Mr. Poole does finally arrive at one humanizing scene. Miss Dillon comes to confession just as he is ready to spend the evening in a pub, whereupon he decides that most mortal sins can wait till Saturday for forgiveness. For a few minutes, you understand a man.
But "Once a Catholic" is on the long side, and the few good minutes here and there (from Miss Dillon, Miss Cass, Miss Roberts and Mr. Poole) can't nail it down. Back to Mary McCarthy's "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood" if you're still curious. Same environment, evoked with a superbly steady hand.