“Bad Habits” is a raunchy religious comedy that feels more like a sitcom than a play

By Angie Fiedler Sutton

Alley Mills and Orson Bean play a conflicted Mother Superior and a nasty bishop in the Ruskin Group Theatre’s world premiere of “Bad Habits”
Photo by Ed Krieger

There is an obvious difference between television and theatre. Not in quality, per se: I’ve seen some really good television and some really bad theatre, after all. But there’s a difference in the writing of it: television is written with commercial breaks in mind, typically with shorter scenes and for a very specific time length. Theatre, meanwhile, only has the act breaks to worry about.

“Bad Habits” comes across as though it was originally written for television and then developed for the stage. Considering the play was written by Steve Mazur, a screenwriter whose credits include the Jim Carrey comedy “Liar Liar” (1997) and the star-packed “Heartbreakers” (2001), this may very well have been the case.

The story follows a small group of nuns at the convent St. Cyril’s. When a nun accidentally blows herself up and leaves a gaping hole in the side of the convent, the sisters are hit with the news that the disaster may be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back: closing the convent and school it’s attached to for good. But the Mother Superior (Alley Mills) has a plan, and goes to the bishop (Orson Bean) asking for a loan.

In the meantime, the nuns left at the convent are visited during a stormy night by a woman named Maria (Kelsey Griswold), who promptly faints. During her visit, Maria has visions and tells the nuns that God told her to come. This leads to the possibility of using Maria’s visions to help save the convent, but leads to a moral quandary for the Mother Superior. Should she use this young girl to further her own cause? Is this truly what God intends?

This plot, however, is interspersed with odd short scenes of the various cast members interacting with the audience as though we were the school children at St. Cyril’s. We sing “Jingle Bells”; one nun brings up two audience members to “rehearse” the Nativity play; and the Bishop does stand up at a supposed Knights of Columbus meeting, which includes a rape joke (albeit a very mild one).

These scenes don’t bring anything to the plot, so it comes across as though the play started its life with maybe 20 minutes of story that have been padded out into a two-act play of roughly 90 minutes. The audience appeared to enjoy most of the added humor, but most of it left me flat. It feels like much of it is done just for the shock value: the sisters of St. Cyril’s like to smoke, drink and curse.

The acting in itself was good — when the cast was allowed to act. Community-minded Venice locals Mills and Bean, who have been married since the early 1990s and often stage a humorous abridged adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” for local families this time of year, have obvious chemistry. For the most part, though, cast members were left to work with nun tropes and interacting with the audience instead. And the conclusion of the play struck me as lending an odd moral to the story, and left much about Maria’s visions unresolved.

“Bad Habits” doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be: a comedy, a drama, or some sort of sketch comedy show. Right now it’s a solid story of about 20 minutes that’s well-acted, but that story gets lost in a lot of padding that makes this play feel more like a sitcom than a work of theatre.

“Bad Habits” resumes its run at The Ruskin Group Theatre (3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica) on Saturday, Jan. 4. Shows continue at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 26. Tickets are $25 to $35 at
ruskingrouptheatre.com.

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