Playwright, actor, and drag performer Charles Busch has made a career out of deconstructing and playfully recreating the classic Hollywood ideal of femininity. His loving sendups of mid-century melodramas combine lowbrow comedy with highly perceptive satire. The over-the-hill actress, forced by fading glamour into a parody of her former self, is his specialty: think Joan Crawford post–Mildred Pierce, affecting girlishness yet so heavily made up (arched eyebrows, dark lipstick) that she might as well be in drag.
Busch’s latest showcase—The Divine Sister, in performance Off-Broadway at SoHo Playhouse—is a spoof of so-called convent pictures. It is inspired most directly by The Trouble with Angels (1966), a light comedy featuring Rosalind Russell as the wimpled head of a girls’ boarding school and Hayley Mills as her most headstrong charge.
Some of those in the audience the night I saw The Divine Sister might have been expecting, or hoping for, antireligion satire along the lines of Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. But Busch’s target isn’t the church, as some have assumed. Archbishop Timothy Dolan recently cited the New York Times’s favorable coverage of The Divine Sister—“yet another tiresome production making fun of Catholic consecrated women”—as further evidence of the paper’s anti-Catholic bias. (He seemed mainly to dislike the production photos.) The weekly magazine Time Out New York is not helping by recommending the show with this blurb: “Heaven help us! Master of drag and camp Charles Busch is back and he’s making fun of nuns!” That makes The Divine Sister sound like a naughtier version of Nunsense—something the world definitely doesn’t need. In fact, the Nunsense take on religious life, as insulting as it is affectionate, is part of what Busch is spoofing. The Divine Sister parodies a specific depiction of nuns that is itself a parody of Catholicism. Time Out ought to know this, since they recently published an interview in which Busch explained where the idea came from: “I wasn’t raised in Catholic school; as a complete outsider I just thought that nuns looked so beautiful and romantic in those medieval robes.” That attraction to the exotic is what inspires nun movies from The Trouble with Angels to Sister Act, and Busch has cannily identified it as one dimension of Hollywood’s artificial approach to womanhood.
The sisters of The Trouble with Angels illustrate how nuns have generally been depicted in film: otherworldly and innocent, but also wisecracking and wise; simple, except when deeply mysterious; virginal and sexless, but somehow super-feminine. The preconciliar nun’s habit in all its variations is as dramatic (and forgiving) a costume as a leading lady could want. Busch has noted the superficiality of Hollywood’s version of vowed religious life: “All of my nuns wear two pairs of false eyelashes and a nice red lipstick,” he told Time Out. His Mother Superior—who speaks with Roz Russell’s smoker’s baritone—is perfectly convinced of her own loveliness. “To eliminate vanity has been my perpetual struggle,” she confesses with pious pleasure.
The Divine Sister does take a few mild swipes at religious backwardness, but there’s no intent to kill. When Mother Superior announces that the title of her forthcoming book—a response to the turmoil of the sexual revolution—will be The Middle Ages: So Bad?, the joke gets a laugh, but in part because of its hokiness and the way Busch mugs delivering the punch line. In all things, Mother Superior is self-confident to the point of smugness. She is a fantasy of a powerful but certainly not “liberated” woman, unencumbered by husband and family, but safely constrained by other, more restrictive vows. Busch’s sisters talk about their “marriage” to Christ in very literal, very corny terms, always with a self-indulgent glance toward heaven. And when, after several melodramatic plot twists, Mother Superior encounters her own long-lost, atheist mother, she gushes, “I can’t wait to introduce you to your son-in-law!”
The set (by B. T. Whitehill) wittily reinforces the impression that religion is only nominally the subject matter. Behind the tumbledown gate of St. Veronica’s convent and school we see a backdrop of candy-colored “stained-glass” windows depicting nothing very religious (flowers, sunshine, a snowman). The inscriptions, in Gothic lettering, are on closer inspection simply alphabet samples. A faceless, impressionistic statue of “the Virgin” stands in a corner, watering flowers with a hose that spews rosary-like Mardi Gras beads.
The jumbled plot centers, sometimes, on the sisters’ need to raise money to save their stately old home—but Mother Superior has a very 1966 attitude toward such matters: “I say blow it up and don’t look back!” she announces, striking another ain’t-I-adorable pose.
It’s the poses and expressions that make the show worthwhile, especially when Busch is onstage. The script is rocky and full of crude jokes (some wonderfully bad, and some just bad). It’s certainly not family-friendly. The scenes that don’t feature Busch tend to drag, if you’ll pardon the pun. But Busch never disappoints, and the other performers are at their best interacting with him. Julie Halston plays the tough-talking, sports-loving Sister Acacius, in obvious homage to the great Mary Wickes (who played a similar character in The Trouble with Angels, and—thirty years later—in Sister Act). Alison Fraser is Sister Walburga, whose outrageous stage-German accent betokens her villainy. (There’s a Da Vinci Code–esque plot line, too.) Amy Rutberg plays the wide-eyed, visionary postulant Agnes (as in “of God”). Busch and director Carl Andress have given them all characteristics drawn from specific films, but the funniest bits belong to Busch, and his performance is as carefully observed as ever. When he picks up a guitar and launches into a mindless ditty, he lip-synchs to a recording of a younger, higher voice, his chin wobbling with make-believe effort like The Sound of Music’s Peggy Wood singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Busch also summons an image from that film when Mother Superior dons her cloak for a trip outside the convent and, pausing, assumes a saintly posture that tilts ever so slightly to the left. Never in all my viewings of The Sound of Music (and there have been many) did I consciously notice the sisters standing that way, but I recognized the pose like an old friend when I saw it onstage. Busch’s genius is in the close attention he pays to such details, and the way he exaggerates them just enough to make their artifice clear.
In The Divine Sister’s funniest scene, Mother Superior decides to petition the wealthy “Widow Levinson” for a donation, despite the fact that the woman is presumably Jewish. Mother is confident of her persuasiveness and pleased with her broadmindedness in making the call. Her attempts at communicating with the “Jewess” are painful: “We need a miracle,” she explains carefully. “Miracle—how would you say that in Yiddish?”
I was prepared for a low blow when a student named Timmy (played by Jennifer Van Dyck) came to Mother to confess his crush on a male classmate. But while Mother’s advice is not what most people would call helpful, her response is actually compassionate in its way. Watching her confidence waver when faced with Timmy’s problem was much more affecting than any direct attack on Catholic homophobia could have been. And I was stunned when Sister Acacius correctly defined the Immaculate Conception (rather than confusing it with the virgin birth). So what if that doctrinal accuracy owes more to The Song of Bernadette than the Catechism? It’s more than most convent comedies can manage.
Catholics make up an enthusiastic portion of the audience for movies like The Trouble with Angels and Sister Act—and with good reason, as those projects can poke fun at aspects of the faith that merit lampooning. But the infantilization of nuns as dopey cartoons is long overdue for some pushback, and insofar as The Divine Sister exposes and satirizes that trope, it has my thanks. Take offense at the photos if you must, but be warned: you’re missing all the fun.
Pictured: Amy Rutberg, Charles Busch, Alison Fraser, and Julie Halston in The Divine Sister. Photo by David Rogers.
Related: Bleak House, by Mollie Wilson O'Reilly, on the plays of Christopher Durang