Charles Busch was born to play Rosalind Russell, and Greer Garson, and Deborah Kerr, and all the other stars who wimpled-up to play glam nuns in those high-camp religious movies that made a bundle for the big Hollywood studios. The legendary drag performer channels all those divine divas into the guitar-strumming Mother Superior he plays in “The Divine Sister,” a work of his own creation. This inspired parody has all the joyful exuberance of early Busch classics and features stalwart performers from the beloved old troupe — hopeful signs that Busch might be entertaining thoughts of starting a repertory theater.
Set in a traditional Pittsburgh convent school in the challenging social climate of the mid-’60s (a cultural clash amusingly conveyed by B.T. Whitehill’s cartoonish set), the plot gleefully recycles familiar characters caught up in all the old cliches:
n A pious Mother Superior (Busch) is in desperate need of a wealthy benefactor to rescue the dilapidated convent from bankruptcy. (Nose on high and elegantly gowned by Fabio Toblini, Jennifer Van Dyck plays the improbable benefactor, Mrs. Levinson, to snooty perfection.)
n A zany (and sexually frustrated) sidekick, Sister Acacius (Julie Halston, a legend in her own right), keeps everyone’s spirits up with her dirty mouth, vulgar jokes and Whoopi Goldberg delivery, while loyally guarding the secrets of Mother Superior’s romantic past.
n A figure from that secular past, the newshound Jeremy (played by Jonathan Walker with unthreatening manly charm), comes to track down rumors of a young postulant with unearthly healing powers.
n A young postulant, by all means named Agnes, displays unearthly healing powers (and is played with manic conviction by fresh-faced Amy Rutberg).
n And the piece de resistance of religious lunacy: The sinister, unquestionably sadistic Sister Walburga (the incomparable Alison Fraser) is sent from the mother house in Berlin to inspect the convent’s books but is secretly in cahoots with a certain albino monk on a mission to decipher the Da Vinci-like code that will … whatever. Speaking in hushed tones, in a heavily Germanic accent, Fraser craftily insinuates that she’s got a whip under her habit and would just love to use it.
All the nuns are gorgeously made up, as indeed they were in “The Singing Nun,” “Agnes of God,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and all the other movies that Busch affectionately sends up here. Nonetheless, the blood-red lipstick and vampire eye makeup worn by Fraser are enough to set wolves to howling.
Helmer Carl Andress runs a tight ship, carefully maintaining the balance between high comedy (actually, there’s not much of that), ingenious plot and character parody, on the one hand, and lowdown comedy like the raunchy schoolyard jokes that Sister Acacius can’t seem to resist on the other.
More to his credit, his crisp production conveys the sense of a definitive company style. Busch sets the tone, of course, with his earnest, affectionate, irony-free portrayal of an embattled woman fighting against all odds to realize her noble ideals. It’s a tone the entire company respectfully adopts, even at moments of the most sublime idiocy. Call it old-fashioned, this sweet, solemn and rather silly earnestness, but in a crass and sullen world, this kind of comedy is not only refreshing, it’s necessary.