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The Divine Sister

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Amy Rutberg and Charles Busch.
Photo by David Rodgers.

No, Charles Busch isn't God. But as the Mother Superior in his new comedy, The Divine Sister, which just opened at the SoHo Playhouse, he may be the next best thing. Drawing from (more or less) every nun movie ever made, he's created for himself a character of a spirited-yet-far-from-pure leader of St. Veronica's convent in Pittsburgh who proves beyond a doubt that funniness is next to holiness—at least as far as the theatre is concerned.

Friendly yet firm, glowing yet gutsy, and pious yet takes-no-prisoners, Busch's Mother Superior beautifully captures both sides of the spirituality coin, with enough doses of grimacing takes to the audience and pregnant pauses to satisfy even the most devout Busch hound. This is not as inappropriate a blending of character traits as it might seem. Mother is essentially split down the middle, torn between the life of devotion she's chosen and the hard-living (and hard-loving) past she's sacrificed to earn it. And when tested, by desires of caprice or the flesh, you care as much about whether she gives in—or not—as you would were you following the central figure in any other religious morality tale.

That Busch has written the show and this production has been directed by his longtime collaborator Carl Andress all but ensures this is not your ordinary entry in the genre. Though Mother occasionally embodies Maria Rainer (from The Sound of Music), Sister Aloysius from Doubt, and everyone in between, there is a story here that doesn't belong specifically to either, let alone The Song of Bernadette, The Bells of St. Mary's, or even The Da Vinci Code—though at times it seems to belong to all of them, and more.

St. Veronica's, you see, is in danger of closing, but both Mother Superior and the Mistress of Novices, Sister Acacius (Julie Halston), want the convent to thrive and grow. The pair hopes they can make that happen with the help of a wealthy benefactor, Mrs. Levenson (Jennifer van Dyck), though she's one of those atheists they find so troubling. But Mrs. Levenson's house guest, a Hollywood mogul named Jeremy (Jonathan Walker) may be able to help: He wants to make a movie about one fascinating young postulant, Agnes (Amy Rutberg), who claims to have demonstrated the power to heal by laying on hands. Of course, he also has his own secrets—and hey, what's up with that stern Berlin nun, Sister Walburga (Alison Fraser), who's apparently inspecting the convent to report about its fitness, but is mostly intrigued by the catacombs below its floors?

For 90 sinfully silly minutes, these complications—as well as far too many others to get into here—are explored, unraveled, and reassembled until an edge-of-your-seat comic thriller is all that remains. It's only in this final configuration that the show fails to completely satisfy: Given the sheer number of characters (a nontrivial number of whom are played by doubling actors) and bizarre plot elements involved—there may be one too many secret identities for the story's own good—the resolution itself becomes so convoluted that it can only be solved offstage.

But until that point, The Divine Sister is miraculously entertaining, and boasts some of the most brightly polished comic performances to be found in New York right now. You'd expect that of Halston, whose wide-eyed expressions and urban bark of a voice could not be more right for the blustery Sister Acacius. Alison Fraser, however, stuns with the seismic force of her portrayal: Peeking out from beneath her habit (the costumes were designed by Fabio Toblini) and bearing the deep lines of severe makeup, she's a pillar of flash-frozen patricianism with a fire-breathing German sputter that ignites hilarity with every guttural syllable. Rutberg, van Dyck, and Walker are playing more familiar archetypes, but they do so with no shortage of aplomb.

Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid them, or anyone else here, is that they stand up beautifully next to Busch, whose bravura turn would steamroll a lesser ensemble. But he looks and sounds unquestionably at home here, knitting together a steely yet soft-edged willfulness that is as ideal for skewering Richard Rodgers' "Do Re Mi" (Lewis Flinn has composed the withering parody, titled "Trinity of Harmony") as it is convincing you that Mother Superior was once tough-as-nails reporter who always got her man—in more ways than one.

Sacrilegious? Not at all. Busch's send-up is so thorough that, whether or not you're a believer, the source films' innocence is never completely buried under heaping helpings of delicious camp. The biggest worry you're likely to have at The Divine Sister is dying of laughter. Better go to confession first, just in case.

The Divine Sister
SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street (6th Ave & Varick / 7th Avenue)
Tickets online and current performance schedule: OvationTix

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