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A CurtainUp Review
The Divine Sister

You must not be, shall we say, unfamiliar with the bitter gall of poverty. I can see you as a young girl in the shtetl, grinding with a mortar and pestle your gefilte fish for the evening's Sabbath,.— Mother Superior as part of her pitch to get the rich Mrs. Levinson to donate her big home and money for the Convent's new school.

You are most presumptious. I hail from generations of aristocracy. My grandfather was presented at the court of Queen Victoria.—Mrs. Levinson's outraged reply.

But I bet you still enjoy a good kosher pickle. — Sister Acacius, having the last word.
The Divine Sister
Amy Rutberg and Charles Busch (right) in one of many nun-cast movies spoofed in The Divine Sister
(Photo: David Rodgers)
Charles Busch was a downtown playwright-drag performer long before he went mainstream with the Broadway hit The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. Now he has once again written a piece allowing him to return to his drag performance roots.

The Divine Sister is an all-in-one sendup of movies about nuns that began as a fun show without any commercial ambitions. However, it had enough comic oomph to tickle lots of funny bones, including producers Daryl Roth's and Bob Boyett's who have moved it from its showcase production at the Theater for New City to a stylishly staged open-ended commercial run at SoHo Playhouse.

Busch plays the divinely funny Mother Superior of St. Joseph's Convent in Pittsburgh. He — I mean she — has plenty of problems requiring action as well as prayers. For starters, the Convent needs to replace its decaying school. Then there's a young postulant named Agnes (shades of Agnes of God) who might also fit the name Bernadette (as in Song of Bernadette). Add Timothy, a boy who gets baseball coaching from the Mother Superior's fellow Sister but needs mentoring in areas that have nothing to do with pitching a ball but cause great Doubt (as in-- can't you guess?) for Mother; Sister Walburga, a mysterious new nun from the Mother House in Berlin; Mrs. Levinson, a potential funder for the school wh, despite a name that indicates that she's Jewish, happens to be a devout atheist. Oh yes, there's also a man who was in love with Mother Superior when she was still an ambitious girl crime reporter.

Busch looks every bit the old-fashioned nun — but being a nun-à-la Busch means there's enough diddling with authenticity to includes false eyelashes, lipstick, high heels, and, of course, plenty of twinkle-in-the-eye charm. He also plays a guitar and sings (shades of The Singing Nun), and a quick detour to Mother's pre-religious life indulges Busch's fancy for wigs (this one courtesy of Katherine Carr).

The script is filled with other opportunities for costume designer Fabio Toblini to add color and style to to the black and white palette of the Convent attire. Young Agnes loses her special visionary power long enough to change from her modest postulant's outfit into something decidedly more sexy. The rich Jewish Atheist, is a vision in elegant pastels, and the mysterious German Sister has a hilarious turn as her maid.

While Mother Superior is the center of this enterprise, this is an ensemble piece in which everyone gets a chance to be a star — twice so in the case of the hilariously and often unrecognizably double cast Alison Fraser, Jennifer Van Dyck and Jonathan Walker. Since Amy Rutberg's Agnes develops something of a Jeckyll and Hyde persona, you might call hers a semi-double role. Julie Halston plays only tough talking Sister Acacius but she makes a comic feast of it.

Busch is fortunate to have these five versatile and talented actors to zestfully propel ten characters through a plot that uses the quest for a new school to stir up more complications and coincidences than a rosary has beads. Moreover, he bring everything to the expected happy conclusion, all the while working in his allusions to famous golden oldie nun flicks as well as a subplot about the DaVinci Code.

Clever parodist that he is, Busch manages to combine a homage to Hollywood's love affair with nun stories with an irreverent sendup of every religious opinion. The exchange between the two nuns and their potential beneficiary quoted at the top of this review is one of funniest examples, so is how Mrs. Levinson's underscores her commitment to atheism with her take on Agnostics: "wishy washy fools afraid to take an intelligent stand . Give me the religious zealots. At least you can depend on their stupidity."

B. T. Whitehill's cartoony set is a perfect fit for the purposefully ridiculous plot and director Carl Andress has a firm grip on the pace, though there are a few slow spots. The audience at the preview I attended laughed at all the right places. Considering the huge guffaws at a brief routine involving flatulence inserting a bit of the Blazing Saddles brand of humor is a sure-fire laugh getter no matter what the age or sophistication of the audience.

It's fun to connect all the parodic dots. You may even find yourself walking out of the theater humming Sister Soeur Souriere's 1963 pop hit "Dominique." But the humor is broad enough to enjoy The Divine Sister even if you never saw any of the movies vivid enough in the Busch memory book to seed this amusing comic romp.

The Divine Sister by Charles Busch
Directed by Carl Andress
Charles Busch (Mother Superior), Alison Fraser (Sister Walburg/Mrs. Macduffe), Amy Rutberg (Agnes), Jennifer Van Dyck (Mrs. Levinson/Timothy), Jonathan Walker (Jeremy/Brother Venerius), Julie Halston (Sister Acacius)
Scenic and Graphic Design by B.T. Whitehill
Costume Design by Fabio Toblini
Lighting Design by Kirk Bookman
Sound Design by Jill BC DuBoff
Original Music: Lewis Flinn
Wig Design by Katherine Carr
Stage Manager: Angela Allen
SoHo Playhouse 15 Vandam Street
From 9/12/10; opening 9/22/10; open run-- now closing 4/27//11
9/20/10 to 9/26/10--Monday through Wednesday at 8 PM, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, Sunday at 7 PM. Matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 3 PM. After 9/27: Tues through Saturday at 8 PM, Sunday at 7 PM. Matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 3 PM. Check box office for holiday schedules.
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/21 press preview
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