THEATER REVIEW: The Divine Sister is a Madcap Game of Good Nun/Bad Nun

Charles Busch’s delectable theatrical fantasia, on stage at Bucks County Playhouse, sends up beloved movies with skill, affection, and impish glee.

The Cast of The Divine Sister at Bucks County Playhouse. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The Cast of The Divine Sister at Bucks County Playhouse. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

God bless the ‘60s, which as we all know was a time of major artistic trends. For me, it brought a special favorite, one that remains underappreciated, I think —the nun comedy.

Was it Vatican II that started it all?  Or maybe The Sound of Music?  I’ll leave it to ecclesiastical scholars to sort out the history.  But I know for a fact that by the middle of the decade, nuns in movies and on TV weren’t just climbing trees and scraping knees — they were singing, flying, riding motorcycles, solving crimes, and oh, yes — figuring out how convent life should evolve to greet a new world.

That wind blowing the Catholic church is a veritable hurricane in The Divine Sister.

To say that Charles Busch’s deliciously madcap theatrical fantasia is largely based on two wildly popular films of the era — The Trouble with Angels, and its sequel, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows —would be factually correct, but it doesn’t do it justice.  The key to Busch’s greatness, as both a playwright and a performer, is that he’s no mere parodist; rather, he captures and synthesizes entire genres with unerring skill, profound affection, and more than a hint of impish glee.

So here, in Divine Sister, we follow a long-suffering, pious Mother Superior (played by Busch himself, delightfully evoking the great Rosalind Russell) as she attempts to raise money to keep a girl’s school, Saint Veronica’s, afloat.  The process is a fraught with challenges, including her subordinate nuns (Julie Halston, brash and delightful, and Alison Fraser, dripping with sinister Euro-glamour), a postulant (Erin Maguire) who would be more at home in The Exorcist, and a plot so convoluted that I couldn’t capture it if I included a flow chart.  And because this is Charles Busch, there is also a joyfully anarchic sense of gender and sex.  (If you’re thinking of bringing kids to the show, you should be aware that in this convent, the sisters often work blue.)

The Divine Sister premiered in 2010; I saw it then at the Soho Playhouse, where it was cheered by a sold-out crowd who seemed to know every reference.  The production is every bit as good at Bucks County Playhouse, where, remarkably, virtually the entire original cast is reunited (Maguire is a fine new addition).  The passing years have rubbed off just a little of the topicality, and Busch’s brand of humor isn’t for everybody.  But if you missed the show then — and especially if you’re a fan of ‘60s movies — by all means, see it now.

The Divine Sister plays through August 13. For more information, visit the Bucks County Playhouse website.