Sister of Merry

God knows how many times I've run this same photo of Nonie Newton Riley, including back when she was Nonie Newton Breen.
God knows how many times I’ve run this same photo of Nonie Newton Riley, including back when she was Nonie Newton Breen.


Long Wharf Theatre has been bringing various editions of the Late Nite Catechism Catholic -themed improv and audience-participation comedy shows to its Stage II space for over a decade now—sometimes in summer, sometimes at Christmastime, but invariably starring Nonie Newton Breen as Sister. Nun are as good as she.

Now known as Nonie Newton Riley (a name change that reminds us that she is not a nun in real life, just a very skilled comedic actress), this quick-witted Second City veteran knowingly and riotously presides over the pretend Catechism refresher class which defines the Late Nite Catechism series.

It was Long Wharf artistic director Gordon Edelstein who first brought the Late Nite Catechism shows to New Haven after he became the theater’s artistic director in 2002. At his previous theater, ACT in Seattle, Edelstein had converted an office space into a performance area and run Late Nite Catechism there as a weekend attraction for years. Of the many different Late Nite Catechisms, the one that is returning for a two-week Stage II run Dec. 8-20 is Sister’s Christmas Catechism.

The Long Wharf quickly learned that while the shows tend to always do well in New Haven, that Nonie Newton Breen (now Riley) rose above the other Sisters and was worth getting whenever she was available. I’ve seen this accomplished improv artist in the Sister role numerous times. One of the special things she brings to the role is an encyclopedic knowledge of the Catholic Saints. She carefully follows whatever loose framework has been created for each of the Catechisms, but she can also riff expertly on any number of religious or current-event topics, and interact hilariously with audience members.

Late Nite Catechism was originally created by Maripat Donovan (who played the original Sister) and Vicki Quade. While Quade helms productions of the original show in the Chicago area, Donovan has overseen the creation of half a dozen sequels which (along with that first Late Nite Catechism) can seen around the U.S. Both Quade and Donovan have stables of Sisters, some of whom have been performing these shows since they were first staged in the 1990s. Sister’s Christmas Catechism, subtitled “The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold” and featuring a CSI-type investigation into the events surrounding the birth of Christ, was co-written by Donovan, Jane Morris and Marc Silvia. It first played the Long Wharf in 2008, with appearances by local church choirs and an onstage piano accompanist. Sister’s Christmas Catechism may not be the most solid of the many Late Nite Catechism shows, but it’s the most timely for this time of year, and any excuse to see Nonie Newton Riley is a divine one.

Sister’s Christmas Catechism is at Long Wharf Theatre Stage II Dec. 8-20. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 & 7 p.m., Thursdays & Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 & 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $35, but bring some extra cash to drop in a hat on your way out of the theater, to benefit needy retired nuns in Connecticut. The Long’s Wharf’s at 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. (203) 787-4282,