Review: ‘Charles Busch’s The Divine Sister’ at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, PA

Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers haven’t even said grace.

So says the Mother Superior of St. Veronica’s Convent School, the lead character in the new play at the Bucks County Playhouse. But wait a second – isn’t that line suspiciously similar to something Rosalind Russell said in the movie Auntie Mame? And come to think of it, doesn’t this Mother Superior seem awfully similar to the one Russell played in The Trouble With Angels – right down to the bicycle she rides?

Charles Busch as Mother Superior. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Charles Busch as Mother Superior. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It all makes sense when you realize that Mother Superior is played by Charles Busch, who has made a career of donning women’s clothing and writing plays that spoof classic Hollywood movies like the ones that made Russell a star. He turned his attention to movies about nuns when he wrote The Divine Sister, which had a successful off-Broadway run in 2010.

Now Busch, plus most of that production’s cast and creative team, have remounted The Divine Sister at Bucks County Playhouse. And even if you’ve never heard of Russell, or you haven’t seen the many movies that Busch lovingly parodies here, you’re bound to love this madcap and affectionate sendup.

Yes, I said “many movies.” Scenes in The Divine Sister contain references to movies from different Hollywood eras – everything from The Bells of St. Mary’s to Agnes of God, from The Sound of Music to Black Narcissus. Busch not only reuses clichés from these movies, he revels in them. And if your movie memories don’t go that far back, maybe you’ll appreciate the villainous monk who is part of a worldwide conspiracy – a plot thread that satirizes The DaVinci Code.

Busch plays Mother Superior with a near-constant smile. That smile is warm when she wants (or pretends) it to be and tough when she needs it to be. And in this show, set in 1966, Mother Superior displays more than a hint of intolerance: “We are living in a time of great social change. We must do everything in our power to stop it.”

The plot? Well, it has something to do with a postulant who may have the power to work miracles, and a man from Hollywood who wants to turn her story into a movie. This leads to a flashback scene full of lively, fast-paced dialogue that parodies yet another Rosalind Russell movie, His Girl Friday.

What makes Busch’s sendups work is not just that he loves classic movies but that he is able to capture the characters’ attitudes, thus distilling what makes the movies work and what makes them memorable. The jokes are smart and knowing – and occasionally they sting, as in some of his more biting remarks about religion. And when the jokes eventually turn raunchy, they still suit the outrageous tone that Busch has established from the beginning.

Erin Maguire (Agnes), Alison Fraser (Sister Walburga), Charles Busch (Mother Superior), Jonathan Walker (Jeremy), Jennifer Van Dyck (Mrs. Levinson), and Julie Halston (Sister Acacius). Photo by Joan Marcus.
Erin Maguire (Agnes), Alison Fraser (Sister Walburga), Charles Busch (Mother Superior), Jonathan Walker (Jeremy), Jennifer Van Dyck (Mrs. Levinson), and Julie Halston (Sister Acacius). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Director Carl Andress allows each of the cast members to grab the spotlight, and they all contribute a great deal. Julie Halston is the hardboiled nun who is also the school’s wrestling coach; Alison Fraser is a German nun with mascara as thick as her accent; Jennifer Van Dyck is a wealthy neighbor who’s dripping with condescension; Jonathan Walker is the interloper from Mother Superior’s past. They all appeared in the original production.

The cast’s new addition, Erin Maguire (as the wide-eyed postulant), fits in perfectly with all the craziness. All the performers have a great facility with comic voices, and they all manage to go over the top without stealing focus from their co-stars. This is a terrific, impeccably matched team.

B.T. Whitehall’s cartoonish set design is a strong complement to the irreverent text, and Fabio Toblini’s finely detailed costumes give the show an added level of lushness, especially during the 1940s flashback sequence.

Don’t miss this hilarious production – but beware – you may develop some bad habits!

Running Time: 2 hours, including an intermission.

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Charles Busch’s The Divine Sister plays through August 13, 2016 at the Bucks County Playhouse – 70 South Main Street, in New Hope, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 862-2121, or purchase them online.