“Divine Sister’s” Little Miracle
A year in the life of Charles Busch’s new play
Anyone lamenting the difficulties of getting a show produced in New York might consider the approach that Charles Busch took in financing an earlier incarnation of The Divine Sister, his latest gender- and genre-bending hymn to old Hollywood.
“I basically made three phone calls,” Busch says of the play, which has subsequently transferred to an open run at the SoHo Playhouse. “I told each of them, ‘You will get nothing back beyond a tax write-off, and if anything comes of it, you would still get nothing for it.’ What a sales pitch!”
Fittingly for a play that mashes together every nun cliché that Hollywood has come up with (and invents a few more), a miracle happened. Busch secured the funding, and The Divine Sister was soon up and running at Theater for the New City, a scrappy Lower East Side fixture where Busch also puts on an annual Christmas benefit called Times Square Angel.
With its anarchist bookshop in the lobby and dusty puppet-theatre props in the basement, Theater for the New City was far more evocative of the experimental spaces where Busch got his start than the Broadway and off-Broadway houses that have welcomed such recent works as Our Leading Lady and the Tony Award-nominated The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. (In fact, TNC produced the first full-length play he ever wrote, 1982’s Before Our Mother’s Eyes. )
The 24-performance engagement in February and March of this year was billed as a developmental run, but both Busch and his longtime director, Carl Andress, take issue with the notion that The Divine Sister existed solely as something that needed to be “developed” into something else. For one thing, the text didn’t change beyond what Andress describes as “nips and tucks here and there”; for another, both he and Busch maintain they would have been perfectly content if the show had had no further life after those 24 performances.
The freedom of such a small budget also allowed Busch to surround himself with friendly faces. All five of his costars had acted with him before, none more than Julie Halston—The Divine Sister is the fourteenth piece Busch has written for her. (TDF recently collaborated with Halston, too, on a snappy series of videos dubbed Theatre 101.)
The familiarity extends beyond the footlights: Set designer B.T. Whitehill is a longtime collaborator, as is Andress, and Busch’s wig designer of twenty-seven years, Katherine Carr, is also on hand. (With the exception of a flashback to the Mother Superior’s pre-nunnery days, Carr’s job is made considerably easier by the prevalence of wimples.)
Busch and Andress debuted Shanghai Moon at the theater in 1999 under similar circumstances, and that production also transferred to off-Broadway, under the non-profit aegis of the Drama Department. But the current production of The Divine Sister is an altogether rarer thing in today’s economic climate: a commercial off-Broadway run. Busch attributes this entirely to the involvement of producer Daryl Roth, who attended the final TNC performance and is now co-producing the stint at the SoHo Playhouse.
The result—a cracked tale of an unassuming Pittsburgh convent circa 1966 that harbors illegitimate children, assassins and postulants with stigmata—is a fast-paced lark that gently lampoons everything from The Trouble With Angels to Black Narcissus to The Singing Nun to Agnes of God. As with so many of Busch’s plays, a working knowledge of the oeuvres of Rosalind Russell, Deborah Kerr, Loretta Young et al. is helpful but not essential. “I love the hip audiences who are Turner Classic Movies fanatics,” he says, “but I write these things so that someone who’s never seen a single one of these films can still have a good time.”
Busch plays the Mother Superior, a chirpy reactionary whose opinions toward abortion and homosexuality can be summed up in the title of her new book, a nostalgic volume titled The Middle Ages: So Bad?
Whether in the current production or at TNC, Busch is happy to present audiences with such a character—an endearing, charming woman with an abhorrent set of beliefs. “So many of the heroines that I’ve written have been sort of disreputable,” he says. “But Mother Superior is a bit different. It’s challenging for an audience to find itself cheering a character it’s really appalled by.”
Eric Grode was theater critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008. He has also written for the New York Times, New York magazine, American Theatre and the Village Voice.