by Sam Juliano
Since early September there’s been an off-Broadway comedy named The Divine Sister packing them in at the SoHo Playhouse, a cozy little theatre south of Houston Street, a few blocks north of the Holland Tunnel. On an especially frigid Friday evening in the Big Apple, the show’s venerated creator, dragmaster Charles Busch acknowledged the spirited audience at the closing curtain with an air of delight and a clear sense of appreciation. Throughout the campy homage to Hollywood’s archetypal reverent ladies, Busch offers up his own special kind of irreverance in lampooning the melodramatic movies that feature these symbols of purity and rigid discipline. In addition to the films named in the film’s press kits and posters, one can also feel the spectre of Doubt, Agnes of God, His Girl Friday and The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, while one nun bears a remarkable physical (and emotional) resemblence to Sister Margaretta in The Sound of Music. There’s even a heady sub-plot that recalls Powell and Pressberger’s Black Narcissus. There’s a further reference to the beloved musical film with Sister Acacius’ mishearing of Mother Superior’s question, “What is it you can’t face?” Busch theatrically portrays the plucky Mother Superior of St. Veronica’s, a down-at-the-heels Roman Catholic school (and convent) in need of a new home in 1966 Pittsburgh. The Mother’s ethics are questionable, and she harbors some secrets, but she’s shown here as one who’s heart in the right place.
The Divine Sister is at its best when it satirizes the close-mindedness of organized religion, rather than when it plays for laughs by repeating profane phrases or by trying to spice things up with riddled sub-plots. In referring to the culture revolution of the 60’s, Mother Superior tells a possessed young novitate, Agnes: “My dear, we are living in a time of great social change. We must do everything in our power to stop it.” Directed by his oft-collaborator Carl Andress, the production makes comprehensive use of Busch’s special passion of the cinema, and the period when wholesome nuns living in benign cloisters, served as an idealist antidote to drug-crazed America. It’s a subject ripe for all kind of satiric swipes, and Busch plunders a plethora of possibilities in poking fun at the blind adulation of those who embrace belief over reason. Adored with bright lipstick and false eyelashes some the sisters in the play are easily enough prone to breaking into song or dance, while others secretly plot to blow up the convent a la Da Vinci Code. As the most wide-eyed of all the nuns, the zombie-like Amy Rutberg, in an obvious nod to The Song of Bernadette claims “I have saintly visions, hear heavenly voices and have the power to heal. But that’s all.” Her special powers actually allow her to see the faces of saints in laundry room underwear stains, in some vintage rauchy humor.
The humor in the play is broad enough to resonate even with those who don’t have a grasp on the many movies referenced in this full-flung parody. There’s even a subtle broaching of the 1963 pop hit “Dominique” by Sister Soeur Souriere, but again, the specifics don’t adversely affect one’s negotiation of the satire. To that end, B.T. Whitehill’s cartoony set -with its bricks made of sponges and humorous stained-glass windows- well serves the ludicrous machinations of the plot, which moves along breezily enough. Yet, when it’s all over you won’t remember much, as the presentation is scattered, and the thrust of the play isn’t very profound. But this is basically what Busch was shooting for her-a comedy noted by its brevity, one more notable for it’s benign pokes than for any serious kind of Bunuelian mockery.
Busch’s charismatic turn as Mother Superior is impressively supported by the aforementioned Ms. Rutberg as the blindly-devout Agnes, and by lontime Bursch alumni, Julie Halston, who portrays Sister Acasius, a street-smart nun who is both “Mistress of Novices” and wrestling coach. And there Alison Fraser, who plays Sister Walburga, the mysterious new arrival who sorts a deliberately bad old-Hollywood German accent. Other memorable turns include Jennifer Van Dyck as a wealthy heiress being importuned by the Mother Superior for a sizable donation, and Jonathan Walker managing a typical Hollywood reporter, sneaking around trying to land an interview with Agnes about her special powers.
Busch can’t resist the lure of the shock word, and in one overplayed sequence, a nun is repeatedly called ‘cunt face’.’ It works the first two times or so, but then it pads a story that contains more than it’s share of dead spots. As a result some audience members, hankering for laughter, carried on during comedically borderline moments that only served to underscore the uneven quality of the production. Still, if you’re willing to stay the course, and accept the lame with the inspired, Charles Busch in his defining drag, will give you those intermittant bursts of laughter that are all too rare in modern-day theatre.
Note: Lucille, Broadway Bob and I attended the Friday evening (January 22) performance of ‘The Divine Sister’ at the SoHo Playhouse on Vandam Street in lower Manhattan. After the nonety minute show (with no intermission) with had dinner at The Dish, where all three of us indulged in delicious orders of veal parmigiana (mine with spinach and a baked potato, and Lucille and Bob’s with pasta). The vegetable barley soup, as always was very nice.