THE NEW YORK TIMES REVIEW of THE DIVINE SISTER
We all have our own ideas of heaven. For some, it’s white clouds and harps; for others, an eternal shore of silence. But perhaps you’re one of those souls (and I know you’re out there) who imagine an endless swirl of beautifully bad old movies — a place where the acting is always overripe, the plots as thick as oatmeal and the taste level close to the gutter. If this describes you, paradise awaits you, friend, just south of Houston Street.
Cue the “Hallelujah” chorus. Charles Busch has put on a nun’s habit and is talking to God, from whom he has evidently received blessed counsel. “The Divine Sister,” his new comedy at the SoHo Playhouse, finds Mr. Busch returned to peak form. This gleefully twisted tale of the secret lives of nuns — in which the playwright doubles as leading lady — is Mr. Busch’s freshest, funniest work in years, perhaps decades.
Mr. Busch might argue that all he has done is revive the formula that made him famous a quarter of a century ago, when his “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” became a must-have downtown ticket. Since then, he has written a hit mainstream Broadway comedy (“The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”) and experimented erratically with costume drama (“Queen Amarantha”) and comic meditations on truth versus fiction (“The Third Story”).
But Mr. Busch should never undervalue what he does best: transforming vintage-movie love into irreverently reverent theater, in which affection and subversion live in happy, bawdy harmony. Sure, New York has known a hefty share of Hollywood-inspired drag queens. But few have matched Mr. Busch in packing decades of celluloid dreams into an hour or two of stage satire.
As “The Divine Sister” reminds us, Mr. Busch doesn’t do single-note send-ups. Directed by his frequent collaborator Carl Andress and featuring a priceless Julie Halston and Alison Fraser, this show is ostensibly a naughty riff on wholesome mid-1960s fare like “The Trouble With Angels” and “The Singing Nun.” These were aggressively family-oriented films in which women in wimples were wise and cute and unthreatening, bulwarks of wholesomeness in a druggy, sex-crazed era.
Certainly the Mother Superior of St. Veronica’s convent school is aware of her place in history. “My dear, we are living in a time of great social change,” says the Mother Superior, who is portrayed, of course, by Mr. Busch. “We must do everything in our power to stop it.”
Mr. Busch would seem to be basing his portrait on late-career Rosalind Russell, who starred in “The Trouble With Angels” and its sequel. His face a mask of warm condescension, his diction as plummy as damson preserves, Mr. Busch does evoke the holier-than-thou graciousness into which Russell evolved. But wait. Before Russell was a grande dame, she was just a dame, as Mr. Busch well remembers.
So it turns out that before she took the veil, our Mother Superior had a life as a girl reporter, who bears a distinct resemblance to Hildy Johnson, the ace journalist played by Russell in the wonderful Howard Hawks film “His Girl Friday.” Flashback! There’s the beloved M.S. when she was still sassy Susan of The Daily Graphic, swapping machine-gun dialogue as foreplay with a fellow reporter (the terrific Jonathan Walker). The rapid, tongue-twisting pace here matches the exhilarating, exhausting tempo of Hawks’s film.
Whew! No wonder Susie graduated to a life of contemplation in a nun’s habit (also so conveniently flattering to an older gal’s chin-line and waist-line). But serenity will prove elusive at St. Veronica’s. Mother Superior isn’t the only one on the premises with a past. There’s a bulging roster of Sisters with Secrets: Sister Acacius (Ms. Halston), the hearty convent wrestling coach; Sister Walburga (a scrumptiously vulpine Ms. Fraser), a recent transplant from Berlin; and the fresh-faced postulant, Agnes (the delightful Amy Rutberg).
The unraveling of those secrets involves enough plot threads to weave a center-hall tapestry. It’s a process that allows Mr. Busch to summon a host of cultural references to ecumenically themed entertainments. We segue from the sunny environs of “The Singing Nun” and “The Sound of Music” (Mother Superior strums a guitar and lip syncs inspiringly) and older happy-nun movies (“The Bells of St. Mary’s”) to the shadows of nun noir cinema and theater (Michael Powell’s “Black Narcissus” and the convent mysteries “Agnes of God” and “Doubt”).
Along the way, there are expressive nods to Mrs. Venable’s florid God-renouncing speech from “Suddenly, Last Summer” (impeccably delivered by Jennifer Van Dyck as the town’s rich resident atheist) and the mazelike convolutions of “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Name of the Rose.” (Yes, there’s a sinister monk on board, too, played by Mr. Walker.)
These allusions add up to something more than a pop-fizzy crossword puzzle. Within the silliness lies a canny awareness of how mass culture has exploited our suspicions of those who live in religious orders. What are these people hiding behind their habits and cassocks and cloister walls? The lucrative career of the novelist Dan Brown is all the evidence you need that this fascination hasn’t died.
Of course, you don’t have to think along such lofty lines to appreciate “The Divine Sister.” It is also camp vaudeville of a very high (or high-low) order, a mixture of Rabelaisian crudeness and stylistic flourishes, of a wide-eyed fan’s innocence and a connoisseur’s savvy. This is evident in the show’s cheerfully wicked sets (by B. T. Whitehill) and costumes (by Fabio Toblini) and, above all, the performances.
Ms. Halston, who has a long history with Mr. Busch, is delivering a master class in the comic art of listening. But all the women here demonstrate that you don’t have to be a man to be a first-class female impersonator. Mr. Busch has the most, er, catholic range, conjuring up a phalanx of wimple-wearing heroines, past and present: Deborah Kerr, Ingrid Bergman, Loretta Young and a certain great contemporary stage star who is returning to Broadway this season (in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”) and won a Tony for playing a Mother Superior five years ago:
Get thee to Mr. Busch’s nunnery, Cherry Jones. When you hear him pronounce the word “doubt,” you will learn that you have joined that select, illustrious pantheon of actresses worthy of this spoofmeister’s mimicry.
The Divine Sister
By Charles Busch; directed by Carl An-dress; sets by B. T. Whitehill; costumes by Fabio Toblini; lighting by Kirk Bookman; sound by Jill B C DuBoff; wig design by Katherine Carr; music by Lewis Flinn; production stage manager, Angela Allen; production manager, Ricardo Taylor; company manager, Danielle Karliner; general manager, Adam Hess; associate producers, Alexander Fraser, Tim Levy and Land Line Productions. Presented by Daryl Roth and Bob Boyett. At the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Van Dam Street, South Village; 212-691-1555; ovationtix.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.