Volume 80, Number 18 | September 30 - October 6, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

THE DIVINE SISTER
Soho Playhouse
15 Vandam St., btw. Sixth Ave. & Varick St.
Tues.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 7 p.m.
Sat., Sun. at 3 p.m.
$65. Call 212-691-1555

Photo by David Rodgers

Jonathan Walker and Charles Busch play former crime beat reporters in “The Divine Sister.”

Smart Habit
Charles Busch’s bawdy, nun-sensical spoof is heaven-sent

BY DAVID KENNERLEY

Early last year, critics and audiences alike feared that “The Third Story,” Charles Busch’s inscrutable fractured fairytale, signaled the end of a fabulous career. Many left the theater scratching their heads, wondering what happened to the mastermind of such subversively demented downtown gems as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” “Psycho Beach Party” and “The Lady in Question,” staged on a shoestring in the 1980s.

In 2000, you may recall, Busch even achieved an air of uptown respectability with the “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” which was nominated for a Tony Award. Still, certain aficionados wanted their beloved, scrappy old Charles Busch back.

Now their prayers have been answered. With “The Divine Sister,” the drag doyenne recaptures his glory days, spoofing such convent-centric Hollywood motion pictures as “Black Narcissus,” “The Singing Nun” and “The Trouble With Angels” — with a dollop of “The Da Vinci Code” thrown in. As with past efforts, the playwright/actor manages to both skewer and celebrate such cheesy relics. As for the Catholic Church, it should be noted that the skewering far exceeds the celebrating.

The convoluted, goofy plot, set in Pittsburgh circa 1966 — the year “Trouble With Angels,” starring Rosalind Russell, premiered — is a nostalgic mash-up of all those films and more. In an effort to save the crumbling and financially ailing St. Veronica’s convent and school from closing, Mother Superior (played by Busch, naturally) approaches a wealthy atheist widow (Jennifer Van Dyck) to ask for help. She is coolly rebuffed.

Another problem for Mother Superior is Agnes (Amy Rutberg), a nutty novice who claims to possess saintly healing powers. Looking to exploit Agnes’ gifts and turn her story into a Hollywood film is Jeremy (Jonathan Walker), who, by strange coincidence, worked with the Mother Superior in her pre-vow days as a crackerjack crime reporter. He still has the hots for her. The tart-tongued flashback of the couple working a crime scene is genius; any resemblance to another Russell film, “His Girl Friday,” is purely intentional.

Meanwhile, a shady new arrival from Berlin, Sister Walburga (Alison Fraser, with a deliciously caustic German accent), covertly searches for a crypt beneath the convent that may alter the course of history.

As with any Busch campfest, merry mayhem ensues, and the dizzying climax is fraught with too many secrets revealed, including not one but two long-lost daughters. And perhaps the discovery of a long-lost sister. Of Jesus Christ, no less.

As the wise Mother Superior with a checkered past valiantly ushering a sacred institution into the modern world, Busch keenly channels both Rosalind Russell and Deborah Kerr. Yet, under the capable direction of Carl Andress (who helmed several other Busch shows), his turn is somewhat subdued, allowing other ensemble members to shine.

There’s no way this farce would fly without go-for-broke performances, and this cast delivers. Longtime Busch collaborator Julie Halston (who has enjoyed mainstream TV success in “Sex and the City” and “The Class”), as Sister Acacius, is as delightful as ever. With her honking Brooklyn accent and sexual hysterics, she nails the feisty sidekick role, barking lines like “Aw, shut your hole” like a truck driver.

The redheaded Rutburg nicely evokes a mild-mannered servant of God who morphs into a monster. When the nuns break out the guitar and giddily lip-synch “Three notes from a chord which brings us closer to the Lord,” it’s hard not to smile.

Attempts to reprise the crass edginess of Busch’s earlier plays are hit and miss. The protracted bit about Jeremy’s “giant schlong” feels tacked on and falls flat. However, the vision of a saint in a child’s urine-stained underwear is amusing, and the running joke about a misheard profanity — did Mother Superior really call Sister Acacia that? — hits a bulls-eye.

The Soho Playhouse, an intimate, creaky theater a couple of blocks below Houston Street, is ideal for this no-frills romp. The low-tech set by B.T. Whitehill, dominated by stained glass windows that look as if crafted by the children at St. Veronica’s, strikes the perfect note of off-kilter silliness.

Lucky for us, the script crackles with the knowing wit and whimsy of the best of the Busch canon. In a warped riff from yet another Russell classic, Mother Superior quips, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers haven’t even said grace.” Later, she woefully admits being filled with “doubt,” a sly nod to the award-winning play and film of the same name.

If you catch at least half of the movie references, your enjoyment of “The Divine Sister” is assured. If not, may God help you.

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