08 October 2010

Busch’s ‘The Divine Sister’

Holy Diva! Charles Busch

Actor, playwright, and (above all) diva, Charles Busch is, in keeping with the old adage, someone who says things funny. It is his mouth especially that seems to inhabit its own comedic universe; dwelling on a New York stage for an hour or two, it puts on its own show. To call what Busch’s mouth does “grimacing” does pretty much encompass all its moods: pursed in mockery, agape in horror, trembling with desire. That mouth, with its perfect teeth and vivid lipstick, comments constantly — and independently of Busch himself — on the surrounding action. I’m not sure what word could express just how graceful those grimaces are, and how funny.

The cast: Rutberg, Fraser, Busch, Walker, Van Dyck, Halston

So you will have to see for yourself, and luckily, you can now, since his latest play, The Divine Sister, has begun an unlimited run at New York’s SoHo Playhouse. A mash-up of every nun movie you ever heard of, with a couple of extended riffs on His Girl Friday, Suddenly Last Summer, and The DaVinci Code thrown in for good measure, The Divine Sister is, as Busch explained in a post-curtain speech last night, an attempt to get back to the fun of his earlier theatrical adventures downtown (including Psycho Beach Party, the last play I saw him do, before it turned into the movie of the same name). I’m pleased to report that, for this audience member, he has succeeded handsomely. Or perhaps beautifully.

Jennifer Van Dyck (Mrs. Levinson) with Busch

Busch likes to say that his spoofs are designed to appeal to a broad audience, and not merely to those who worship old movies. I trust that lots of people could enjoy his plays, but you’ll have to ask them; alas, I’m one who knows his way around old Hollywood. Even when Busch is channeling Rosalind Russell (as he is for the greater part of The Divine Sister), I see Susan Hayward whenever I look at him. He is exceptionally lovely in drag, with not a trace of the grotesquerie that marks so much drag work. His stage persona is a loving, detailed tribute to great stars who probably cannot be evoked by mere mortals, men or women. Something bigger, grander, and more artificial is required to do justice to these lost luminaries.

Weird Sisters: Rutberg, Busch, Fraser, Halston.

The Divine Sister scores a few political points about narrow-minded religious people in general and certain policies of the Roman Catholic Church, but its real impulse is sheer fun. When a postulant named Agnes (cue your memories of Agnes of God) has visions or receives stigmata, you can be sure there’s a non-celestial explanation, and you’re likely to laugh — unless of course you are narrow-minded or a conservative Catholic. In which case you probably haven’t read this far.

Second to Nun: Halston teams again with Busch.

The cast includes Julie Halston, who has appeared in more of Busch’s plays than I can count, as the earthy Sister Acacius who has been the tough-talking sidekick since the Mother Superior (Busch himself) was a wisecracking girl reporter. But over the course of the play’s fleet 90 minutes, Acacius suffers the bulk of the play’s indignities; she’s reduced us to hysterics, and she takes us along with her. Alison Fraser plays the mysterious Sister Walburga like Eartha Kitt impersonating a Gestapo officer, her every line a lingering Teutonic purr; and Amy Rutberg trills merrily — until she stops — as the pure fool, Agnes. Jonathan Walker plays the straight man (in both senses) with enthusiasm, but his roles simply aren’t as much fun as the others. How could they be?

Catechism in the Wry: Busch (Mother Superior) & Van Dyck (Timothy)

Special mention must be made of Jennifer Van Dyck, who portrays with equal élan the grande dame, Mrs. Levinson, and a little boy named Timothy. I knew Jennifer at Brown, where she impressed me from her first day on campus. I have never seen anyone to rival her in a cold audition: at 17, she could pick up a script, find the jokes, and put them over flawlessly. Her gifts have not diminished over time, and her own mobile moue has at last found its soulmate in Busch’s.


Carl Andress, Busch’s frequent collaborator, directs with just the right energy: the piece zips along, but we get plenty of time for the jokes, the takes, and the pauses. Clearly, he knows this kind of material at least as well as Busch does, and you never get the feeling that either man has missed an opportunity to get a laugh. Fabio Toblini designed the costumes with flashes of wit (Walburga’s gloves are a nice touch) and great ingenuity: several actors are double-cast, and their costume changes defy belief. B.T. Whitehill’s set design has a great “Let’s put on a play in my uncle’s garage” flavor, and Lewis Flinn contributed original music, which of course includes a guitar song for the Mother Superior. That’s as much suggestion as we get of The Singing Nun and The Sound of Music; if The Divine Sister is ever turned into a movie (and I hope it will be), a few more such musical numbers would be welcome. Charles Busch already laughs like a brook as it trips and falls.

Soeur Sourire? Amy Rutberg with Busch


Mikebench said...

Great post on a great play and a great artist! :-)
I saw it a week ago and LOVED it! I can't wait to discuss it with you in a couple of days...

Anonymous said...

Thanks to your review, I sought out a performance this weekend- and so glad I did. Charles and company proved their skills at comedic technique!

Anonymous said...

Would you give a positive review to a play that ridicules rabbis, sheiks, or blacks who celebrate Kwanzaa?

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Dear Rick --

Refreshing though it is to see you take a politically correct stance, your question is ill-founded. Charles Busch mocks movies about nuns -- which have scant basis in reality. Real nuns (and other Catholics) have less grounds to take offense in The Divine Sister than they have to take pride in The Trouble with Angels.

All best ---

Anonymous said...

May I quote the fourth paragraph of your piece? "The Divine Sister scores a few political points about ... certain policies of the Roman Catholic Church."

So, the question stands: Would you write a glowing review of a play that scores points against the icons and institutions of groups to which you are generally sympathetic, i.e. Jewish or black Americans?

There is nothing politically correct about saying, "Hmm. I smell a double standard here."

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

The short answer to your question is yes.

The longer answer is that I emphatically hope I would endorse a play that questions or satirizes attitudes or philosophies that I believe harmful, even when these are espoused by groups I support and admire. I believe that satire is a useful instrument in provoking constructive dialogue, and it's certainly good theater when practiced as Busch does.

Anne said...

I got to see Mr Busch and company in this production and I'm very grateful to him for putting it on and at very reasonable rates too ...like so many I had heard about the LEDGENARY productions of yesteryear, saw the black and white videos and thought my chance to see him perform live myself was past...BUT NO. I got to see him and many of his usual troop and it's all I'd hope it would be and more!

Thank you Mr. Busch !