By John Dwyer
It’s summertime, and there are picnics being enjoyed in parks and backyards. Summer theater is much like a picnic — lighter fare is usually served. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” does not usually get heaped onto your plate in summer stock.
Comedies, however, are perfect for the season. And if your Aunt Mildred happened to bake an apple pie for our picnic that is to die for, our Uncle Charles Busch (or “Aunt,” depending on how quickly you turn your head) has concocted a delectable desert of a comedy called “Divine Sister” that will, no doubt, have many audience members going back for seconds.
First, let’s explain that Charles Busch is extraordinary in the world of theater as an actor who writes his own material. That alone sets him apart. But it is the lead female role that he writes for himself and, over the years, his writing has gotten more complex, his acting more arch and more layered. He is unique. A one-of-a-kind.
In Shakespeare’s time, men played female roles. But Shakespeare, as far as we know, did not play Rosalind in “As You Like It.” And who does that now? Charles Busch, Renaissance man, does play his female lead of Mother Superior in Divine Sister, and it is scrumptious. He finds his inspiration for his plays most often in classic and not-so-classic films that were a central part of growing up in America. In less than two hours with Divine Sister, our brain synapses snap, crackle, and pop recalling “The Sound of Music,” “The Singing Nun,” “His Girl Friday,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” “The Trouble with Angels,” “Doubt,” and no doubt a few more. The acting is broad, and the dialogue fast-paced screwball comedy. It was as if Hamlet’s “get thee to a nunnery” was directed toward Howard Hawkes or Preston Sturges.
But back to the desert analogy: Divine Sister is a unique twist on the banana split, with Charles Busch being the gently tucked top banana to whom all things happen. Added to this are five delicious scoops of Alison Fraser, Julie Halston, Erin Maguire, Jennifer Van Dyck and Jonathan Walker. Scoop one is a Nutsy German White Chocolate called Alison Fraser as Sister Walburga. Scoop two is Bubble Gum Batter Up Julie Halston as Sister Acacia, gym teacher and wrestling coach. Scoop three is a Virgin Cherry Vanilla named Erin Maguire as the Postulate Agnes who seems to be able to work miracles. Scoop four is Tooty Fruity Ongeshtopt for Jennifer Van Dyck, who is doing double duty as Mrs. Levinson, the town’s wealthy atheist dowager, and Timmy, a student. And our fifth scoop of Hunky Munky is Jonathan Walker, who plays handsome stud reporter Jeremy, who was in love with Mother Superior prior to her convent days when she was Susan, ace reporter with the Daily Graphic. He also plays the secondary role of Brother Venerius.
The whipped cream, sprinkles and cherry on top come courtesy of set design by Brian T. Whitehill, costumes by Fabio Toblini, and wigs by Katherine Carr. All served up with great direction from Carl Andress. Kudos to Executive Producer Alex Fraser, who also was originally involved in producing “Divine Sister“ when it premiered in New York at the Soho Playhouse.
The crazy quilt of a plot is part of the fun of the show, and we won’t reveal the ins and outs of the mysteries going on at St. Veronica’s. The through line, though, is they need money to save the convent and the school. They appeal to Mrs. Levinson, who has misgivings. Also, Jeremy is reuniting with Mother Superior when he comes to St. Veronica’s to cover supposed miracles that are happening there. What ensues is a raucous, bawdy comic romp for us adults who adore the movies.
There are many questions: Who is Sister Walburga, and why did she come to the convent from Berlin? Are miracles happening at St. Veronica’s? Are there skeletons in Mother Superior’s closet? In a whirlwind of less than two hours, all these questions will be answered. There are a couple of moments that will have you laughing so hard, you will almost be falling out of your pew, or rather, seat.
Will the convent be saved? If you’re placing bets, you can put your money on Mother Superior, the tough former news reporter, to do everything she can to save it. With prayers and heavenly intervention, the audience knows things will turn around — God is on their side. New Hope is known for its ice cream, but the Bucks County Playhouse has given us a heck of a swell sundae, and not just for Sunday — God love you — but for every day of the week until Aug. 13. Tickets for Charles Busch’s The Divine Sister are available online, or call (215) 862-2121.