The American Heartland is high on Nuncrackers.

Creatures of Habit 

The American Heartland is high on Nuncrackers.

Now that the Nunsense franchise is into its fourth chapter, with a fifth on the way, creator Dan Goggin can claim bragging rights: He has single-handedly made nuns into a dominant force in American musical comedy. And judging from his Christmas version, Nuncrackers, at American Heartland Theatre, he's not getting lazy at all. He's writing real show tunes even as he recycles shows.

The personable sisters of Mt. St. Helen's in Hoboken, New Jersey, haven't changed since the 1986 Nunsense. Reverend Mother (Kim Grogg) is still a frustrated Broadway star who sees her convent as central casting for sparkling talent shows. Sister Robert Anne (Heidi Gutknecht) bounds off the walls like an errant basketball while Sister Mary Paul (Teri Adams), sometimes called Sister Amnesia, wears each mind lapse like a badge of honor. (She knows she can get away with anything short of prostitution by simply declaring "I forgot.") The voice of reason in the group is the stern but not exactly prudish Sister Mary Hubert (Lori Blalock).

The Sisters are taping a Christmas special in their converted basement (a nice display of kitsch by set designer Del Unruh), which sets up most of the songs and sketches. Among the most entertaining are Adams' twangy and spirited "Santa Ain't Comin' to Our House," Gutknecht's heartfelt "Jesus Was Born in Brooklyn" and Blalock's gospel dynamo, "It's Better to Give." Grogg, the sole New York import in the show, has a rich alto that lends heft to "A Carnival Christmas." And the whole Paul Hough-directed cast shines in a campy Village People salute called "In the Convent." If the actors are better than the material, they're not letting on; they give Goggin's songs the robust treatment they would a Rodgers or Hart.

While past shows in the catalog have stayed focused on the sisters, Nuncrackers throws in some kids and Father Virgil (Ken Remmert) to replace the ballet-obsessed Sister Mary Leo (Amy Morgan). She is, in fact, so barely there it's unclear why Goggin even bothered; she makes an appearance at the opening, has an accident that sets up a Fantasia-like ballet between Reverend Mother and Father Virgil, and is invisible until the curtain call. (If ever a character were a plot device, Sister Mary Leo is it.)

Nonetheless, Goggin's nun shows will always play better than they should when there is this range of talent on and behind the stage. It is mystifying, for example, how much sound comes from musical director Anthony Edwards' keyboards. Costume designer Georgianna Londre works wonders accessorizing the nuns' basic black-and-white and the school uniforms of the kids (Charles Lavole-Wheeler, Katie Duffy, Sarah Cline and Brenton Kimmi). And lighting designer Shane Rowse has fun with traditional spots and a host of filters that cause snowflakes to dance across the stage. Shock treatment: Not since Late Night Theatre staged Sweet Charity in a former strip joint has there been a better match between venue and play than Gorilla Theatre's States of Shock at the El Torreon Ballroom. The play unfolds in a coffee shop and, with the audience members sitting in circular booths or at cafe tables, it's as if they're fellow diners not meaning to eavesdrop. Alas, everything fortuitous about this synergy evaporates once the play begins.

Sam Shepard's antiwar diatribe brings five people into a diner called Danny's. Two weirdly connected military vets carry on as if they've escaped from an asylum while, across the restaurant, a grumpy middle-aged couple kvetches about their delayed order of clam chowder. And there's a fumbling waitress whose inability to carry a tray is perhaps the clunkiest metaphor ever staged. It seems the older vet's son was killed in the Gulf War, and he's brought one of his son's wounded peers to the diner to mark the anniversary of that death -- with banana splits, no less.

States of Shock has the subtlety of a bullhorn; it's less a slice of life than an unwieldy slab of text. There's nothing to recommend it except perhaps as an example of how a playwright like Shepard has the clout to get such ponderous writing published.

And this production is painful on several levels, due to the room's unforgiving acoustics and Robin Zeplin's misguided direction. Playing the brusque, militarily dressed Colonel, lead actor Walter Winch assaults the audience and his lines by consistently screaming -- a problem that should have been easy to fix because no one else on stage produces such a clamor. As the younger grunt, Tom Jones periodically blows a whistle that pierces eardrums like a knitting needle. Zeplin seems to believe that maximum volume creates maximum meaning -- which might work if the play had any meaning to maximize or if the cast had the ability to bring any life to its lines. But the score is zero on both counts.

In light of the current state of things, a scene in which three of the five characters strap on gas masks has the potential to be a frightening mirror of the times. But the acting is so poor and the production's energy so phony and inert that the only burning question States of Shock arouses is "When will it end?" Answer: 65 minutes after it starts.

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