Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Divine Sister
The theater's latest coup is bringing Charles Busch's hit comedy The Divine Sister to town for a three-week run, with nearly all of its original New York cast in tow. The play aims to be an airy parody of 1960s films about the lives of consecrated Catholic sisterssomething of a cottage industry, between The Sound of Music, The Flying Nun, and The Trouble with Angels. Yet, despite a few hard-won laughs that come more from the virtuosity of the performers than the virtue of the script, this effort feels as stale as the films it attempts to spoof.
Busch appears, in drag, as the Mother Superior of a beleaguered Pittsburgh convent and parochial school. She desperately seeks money from a wealthy widow (Jennifer Van Dyck) to restore the school to its former glory, but the widow is a hardened atheist and won't budge. Her days are complicated further by her fellow sisters: Mary Acacius (Julie Halston), who harbors a shocking, decades-old secret (not to mention a host of worldly desires that just won't quit); Maria Walburga (Alison Fraser), a shady, sadistic nun visiting from the mother house in Berlin; and Agnes (Erin Maguire), a postulant who may or may not possess mystical healing powers. When a Hollywood executive from Mother Superior's past (played by Jonathan Walker) arrives to option the rights to Sister Agnes' life story, he opens a Pandora's box of conspiracies and capers, and hilarity ensues.
Or, at least, it's supposed to. I must admit that the acclaim Busch has received throughout his career, as both a writer and performer, baffles me. He has been hailed as an innovative female impersonatora deconstructionist of the genre, evenbut his style really boils down to rudimentary drag. As Mother Superior, he uses his voice peculiarly; his idea of firm femininity appears to be Kathleen Turner with a cold. The character is also meant to be comically reactionary; her analogue is really the grave Sister Aloysius from John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, yet I think Cherry Jones and Meryl Street brought more humor to that harridan than Busch brings to his.
Luckily, all is not lost when you have performers as fine as Halston (a longtime Busch collaborator) and Fraser giving it their best. Both women wring more laughs out of their roles than they rightly should, as does Maguire, playing a comic cross between Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette and Meg Tilly in Agnes of God. Walker and especially Van Dyck are also wonderful, but even the combined efforts of all cannot buoy a rather dismal evening.
The production is directed by Carl Andress with the acuity of a high school drama teacher. The sets (by B.T. Whitehall) and costumes (by Fabio Toblini) look cheap, although that may be the point. The audience on opening night howled with laughtertake that with a grain of salt, though, as I believe most were connected with the production. Unfortunately, The Divine Sister is about as divine as detention with Sister Aloysius.
The Divine Sister continues at Bucks Count Playhouse (70 S. Main Street in New Hope) through Sunday, August 13, 2016. Tickets ($35-74) can be purchased online at www.bcptheater.org, by phone (215-862-2121), or in person at the box office.