Story: Mother Superior desperately needs funds to improve St. Veronica’s school, a middle-class Roman Catholic facility in Pittsburgh teeming with Baby Boomers circa 1966. “It’s a period of vast social change,” she tells another nun, “and we must do everything in our power to stop it.” In dire straits, she visits a local Jewish widow known for her beneficence, only to learn that Mrs. Levinson is a confirmed atheist.
The arrival of Sister Walburga, a mysterious nun from Berlin, only complicates life for Mother Superior. There’s also the scheming Brother Venerius, who holds some dark secret he is sworn to protect, and the no-nonsense Sister Acacius, head of the school wrestling team and a Bronx Bomber as evidenced by her rough accent and quick way with a fist. When a young postulant named Sister Agnes begins having miraculous ‘visions,’ Mother Superior is determined to do what she can to save St. Veronica’s.
Ironically, she’s visited by a film studio executive named Jeremy who hears about Sister Agnes’ experiences and wants the story for a script. It turns out that Jeremy once was an enterprising reporter who fell in love with another intrepid, ink-stained wretch named Susan before she ran off to the convent. Jeremy’s love is rekindled when he recognizes Mother Superior. Can he help her save the day for St. Veronica’s? Can they avoid the sinister snare of the secret society of Brother Venerius? Can they all sing in tune?
Highlights: Charles Busch, who wrote the truly wretched Tale of the Allergist’s Wife as his only Broadway hit, surprisingly delivers the goods with this deft, delirious and mostly delightful send-up of all things novitiate that premiered Off-Broadway in 2010.
HotCity Theatre subsequently picked up the rights to the St. Louis premiere of this zany, inspired two-act comedy. Under the devilishly droll direction of artistic director Marty Stanberry, the local production mostly keeps the laugh-o-meter clicking merrily away, thanks to the nearly divine intervention of Stanberry’s dutiful cast.
Other Info: We’re welcomed into the not-so-cloistered world of St. Veronica’s to myriad tunes by The Who, courtesy of sound designer Patrick Burks. It’s a pleasant enough convent courtyard, centered on a statue of the Blessed Virgin that hides Mother Superior’s ukulele behind an array of roses for those impromptu musical moments. James Holborow’s set design also features the crimson red interior of Mrs. Levinson’s mansion, replete with prop designer Meg Brinkley’s most garish of portraits of Levinson’s late husband on panels that double as courtyard backdrop for other scenes.
Anyone taught by Ursuline nuns in the 1960s will recognize Jane Sullivan’s costume design for the well-covered sisters, as well as the frock draped around Brother Venerius, an escapee from The Name of the Rose, and the His Girl Friday reporter togs adorning Susan and Jeremy in flashbacks to bygone days. Maureen Berry lights all the goings-on with reverential tones for miraculous moments.
The first act is the better of the two, as Busch’s comedy staggers perceptibly in the second half, even if John Flack is a priceless hoot playing Mother Superior in drag. Pruning 15 minutes or so would alleviate that dreary dilemma and reduce the occasionally plodding script.
There are other minor glitches with the work, such as having nuns wear lipstick too often and, inexplicably, having Mother Superior tutor young student Timmy in the basics of baseball a la “Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris,” when everyone knows that Roberto Clemente was the lion of the Pittsburgh Pirates in that era.
Mostly, though, Busch’s witty script is a clever and deferential homage to celluloid versions of the religious life, whether The Sound of Music, Doubt, Agnes of God, The Trouble of Angels and others as well as more sinister approaches such as The Da Vinci Code. It’s all delivered so impishly that one can just sit back and enjoy the show.
Flack holds center court in delicious drag as the overly enthusiastic Mother Superior with a heart of gold and a troubled past. He’s ably complemented, though, by Lavonne Byers, Kirsten Wylder, Susie Wall, Chopper Leifheit and Alyssa Ward in a variety of amusing performances. Byers lathers the role of the devious Sister Walburga with a thick German accent and an impulsive strong-arm salute as well as essaying the ancient, busybody school janitor with a Scottish highland brogue and an aching back.
Wylder brings hysteria to an art form as the shrieking, thin-skinned Sister Acacius, who probably was punched in the head a dozen or so times too often in her free-wheeling youth. Wall covers fine territory both as the religiously fashionable atheistic dowager and as the earnest Timmy, loyal and devoted to Mother Superior despite some effeminate ways that make her cringe.
Leifheit does what he can with the goofy role of the dastardly, dark Brother Venerius but shines as the lovelorn studio exec who warms to his former lover’s presence, including a priceless bit where Flack and Leifheit speak split seconds apart in machine-gun dialogue straight from a fabulous ‘40s flick. Ward’s voice seems a bit forced at times but she does fine for the most part as the sexually and spiritually confused postulant.
Filled with goofy moments and campy piano tunes ‘performed’ on Mother Superior’s ukulele, The Divine Sister is the Song of Busch for religious and secular audience alike.
Play: The Divine Sister
Group: HotCity Theatre
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand
Dates: December 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15
Tickets: $15-$25; contact 289-4063 or hotcitytheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Todd Studios