Charles Busch gives credence to “silly” in his lampooning paean to nun stories in “The Divine Sister.”
Busch’s sources run the gamut from “The Song of Bernadette” (Jennifer Jones) and “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (Ingrid Bergman) to “Doubt” (Meryl Streep) with great gobs of “The Trouble With Angels” (Rosalind Russell) and “Agnes of God” (Meg Tilly) tossed in the wimpled pop culture brew.
Director Carl Andress begins the performance by having a voice-hearing novice with healing powers (Erin Maguire) twirl on stage like Julie Andrews greeting the Alps in “The Sound of Music,” and a guitar in the style of Andrews or Debbie Reynolds ubiquitously appears. Even a non-nun, like Katharine Hepburn’s Violet Venable, gets her homage in a wonderful scene in which a rich widow (best-of-cast Jennifer Van Dyck) explains to Busch’s Mother Superior her preference for atheism.
This is Charles Busch, so melodrama, mystery, and suppressed sexuality will ooze in amid the spoofing tribute to divas who donned veils in Hollywood’s glorious past. Comedy is the goal. Everything is played for its carefully crafted laughs, so “The Divine Sister,” as seen at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse with pretty much its original cast, is, for all of its plotting and parody, an exercise in camp.
A good one. An entertaining one. You can follow the story, simple and recognizably derivative though it is, but the fun comes from the exaggerated performances that wink their eye at you with every scooch of drollery. Alison Fraser’s slushy German accent that retains the nefarious purr of a conniving villain, Julie Halston’s snarky Noo Yawk patois and less than pious sentiments, and Busch’s grande dame tones that give Van Dyck’s a run for her money, delight as much as anything that’s actually said.
The best news: there is gold in Busch’s dialogue as well.
OK, “dialogue” may not be entirely accurate. There is comic worldliness in Busch’s one-liners, which can be on any subject from morality and life lessons to various kinds of luck or harken back to those movies Busch holds so dear (and that give him so much ammunition for a play like “The Divine Sister”). It helps to know some of the sources for Busch’s bons mots, but most often, the lines are their own reward.
Busch usually gives his character the mock wisdom that, after thinking about it, is akin to the real thing, while saving tough-sounding zingers for Halston, mean sentiments put elegantly for Van Dyck, and satirical practicality to Fraser who coos it with obvious joy in using the obliviousness of the world to ply her character’s mischief. Fraser can be hilarious, but you have to listen to her carefully because of her affected accents and a proclivity to slur some lines.
Though “The Divine Sister” tells a continuing story, individual moments, like individual lines, hold you more than the plot or any semblance of suspense does. You loosely follow the tale of having to save a crumbling convent, the search for a benefactor, the return of a mutual love from Busch and Halston’s pre-nun past, the remarkable powers of Maguire’s novice, and the melodramatic denouement in which a family is united, but it’s Busch’s zanily imaginative side touches that tickle you.
Instead of a commonly located mole or broken locket to show the heredity of three characters closely related but separated by circumstance, Busch has them share the onset of a gagging reflex when each is emotionally stimulated, especially if it’s by something positive.
To make the former suitor (Jonathan Walker) more interesting to his bygone loves, not to mention the audience, Busch has him speak to one of them about his once-footlong endowment having dwindled in middle age to 11 inches. See what I mean. Camp prevails. It’s the spine of “The Divine Sister.” Nun movies provide Busch his material. Good old-fashioned plumping for laughs provide the audience’s good time.
Andress’s production knows how to ask for those laughs without being pandering or egregious. “Subtle” would not be the first word that comes to mind. Professionalism and show business savvy are more the ticket.
Maguire’s opening twirl and otherworldly talents set the tone. But the first laugh actually comes from B.T. Whitehill’s witty stained-glass windows that depict the four seasons in campy ways, e.g. a hand from above putting a hat on a snowman in the winter panel or putting a steak on a barbecue in the summer scene while the alphabet takes the place of prayers on Biblical commentary as text.
Fabio Tablini has fun with the costumes, especially the wonderful designer knock-offs for Van Dyck’s millionairess, who includes whose gown she wore in every story, and for Maguire’s novice who looks as if she’s wearing a Catholic school girl’s uniform with a plaid wimple to match her pleated skirt.
“Fun” is the operative word. Andress manages to maintain pace and polish although no one in his cast would consider timing while milking a bit that is getting a response.
Busch is marvelous at delivering his lines in the plummy tones of a Golden Age leading lady. Halston provides good contrast with a firecracker approach to her readings. Both are great when they shed their nun’s habits to play hard-headed news reporters from the 1930s. Van Dyck, Walker, Maguire, and Fraser help keep the comedy rolling. Maguire is especially good lip-synching her part of a sappy song recorded by Busch regular Ruth Williamson and Emily Loesser.
The Divine Sister, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through Saturday, August 13. $35 to $74. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.