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Comedy Wears Thin on ‘Nunsense III’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dress a group of actresses in nun’s habits and invent an excuse to have them cavort around a stage. Then stand back as audiences line up and the money rolls in.

Sad but true--this is all Dan Goggin has done to create a theatrical empire with his “Nunsense” shows. The original stands as off-Broadway’s second-longest-running show (after “The Fantasticks”), and it remains a staple at theaters across the country. Two sequels have followed.

Now, “Nunsense III: The Jamboree” comes to television, tonight on cable’s Nashville Network. Goggin’s thinking on this version, apparently, is that if actresses in nun’s garb are funny, they’re side-splitting hilarious when additionally outfitted with cowboy boots and rhinestones.

Wrong--though it must be conceded that the audience assembled for this taping at the Grand Ole Opry seems to think it’s watching the funniest thing since Minnie Pearl started walking around with a price tag stuck on her old straw hat.

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“Nunsense III” finds the sisters of Mount St. Helens School in Hoboken, N.J., on a tour to promote the country album released by Sister Mary Amnesia (so named because of what happened when a crucifix once fell on her head). Vicki Lawrence, of “The Carol Burnett Show” and “Mama’s Family,” headlines as Amnesia, joined by Deborah Del Mastro as a wise-cracking nun, Nancy Johnston as the level-headed keeper of order, Jennifer Smith as a wide-eyed novice and Scott Wakefield as a priest who doubles as host of a syndicated radio country music program.

The humor tops out at about the level of this lyric from the opening song: “If you don’t think we’re heaven, you can always go to . . ."--at which point another nun pops through a barn window to interrupt with, “Hell-o friends and neighbors, we’re so happy that you’re here.” Later, the sisters extol life without men, delivering the lyric: “The rooster may be crowin’, but the hens refuse to lay.”

Lawrence’s singing voice isn’t as supple as it once was, and she must truly have amnesia if she can condescend to perform this material after her years on the great “Carol Burnett Show.” Rue McClanahan makes an ill-advised cameo, and a handful of country performers--including Linda Davis, Little Jimmy Dickens, Lulu Roman and the Raybon Brothers--make walk-ons or are spotted in the audience.

The theatrics fall especially flat because David Stern’s direction for television consists merely of cuts between long shots and close-ups. You’ll see more competent camera work on most public-access shows.

But, hey, those sweet sisters have already told people like me what we can do about our disapproval. We “can always go to. . . .”

* “Nunsense III: The Jamboree” airs tonight at 6 and 10 on cable’s TNN. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).


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