The Divine Sister and Alphabetical Order Have Entertaining Habits


I suspect that Charles Busch invented his latest offering, The Divine Sister (SoHo Playhouse), at least partly as a challenge for theater critics, daring me and my colleagues to do all the things we know we shouldn’t, such as trying to find coherence in its story line, which has all the solidity of something built from red crepe paper and old Easter seals. Another challenge would be to analyze, never mind criticize, the show’s acting style, which, if it were an ice cream flavor, would definitely be tutti-frutti—that is, unless some firm I don’t know about has started marketing an ice cream flavor called Pizza With Everything.

As for attempting to find a meaning in the occasion, you might as well offer yourself as a candidate for what they used to call the laughing academy, while if you think that you could compile a complete list of the innumerable previous works about nuns mockingly alluded to in this tale of convent collusions and confusions, you might just as well slip the straitjacket on right now.

Though Busch has at times ventured into more substantive kinds of playwriting, The Divine Sister belongs, like his best-known works, to the category of burlesque. I mean the word in its classical sense, which has nothing to do with people taking their clothes off, though pretty girls in skimpy costumes have always been part of the deal. A burlesque systematically ridicules a popular work or genre. Weber and Fields, the 1890s comic duo whose productions strongly influenced the evolution of the American musical, ran a burlesque theater: Each of their shows began with a variety bill of songs and short comedy sketches; the second act was always a spoof of a hit play, conducted on much the same rowdy terms as The Divine Sister. One of their biggest hits was “Cyranose de Bric-a-brac.”

One short and stout, the other tall and lanky, Weber and Fields were a “Dutch” (i.e., German, as in “Deutsch“) dialect-comedy team, sporting character names like Bierheister and Weinshopper. Their troupe’s female mainstays, both stars in their own right, were the graceful soprano Lillian Russell and the vivacious, pixie-faced comedienne Fay Templeton. Though Divine Sister is not a musical entertainment, the eternal types persist: The familiar faces in Busch’s company include Alison Fraser, whose attractive soprano has graced many musicals, and Julie Halston, whose broad shenanigans—exceptionally broad here—have a long track record in laugh production.

I wasn’t raised Catholic, so spoofs of nun movies exert less magnetism on me than they apparently do on many Americans. Avoid them as I will, I’ve found a good many nun melodramas and nun sentimental comedies going my way, with their treacly songs and gooey inspirational messages. Even at the opera, one occasionally has to face Suor Angelica, the dead-baby plot of which I feel certain is buried somewhere in The Divine Sister‘s insanely convoluted backstory.

Busch’s basic joke sharpens one that the milder entertainments he’s mocking dabble in: the collision between monastic discipline and America’s brash informality. His nunography is so thoroughly up-to-date that he even throws in a subplot burlesquing The Da Vinci Code, the hypertrophied hokum of which fits snugly among targets like miraculous visions, psychic healing, recovered memory, charitable foundations, and Hollywood’s penchant for interminable explanatory flashbacks.

It’s all absurdly silly: good, unclean fun, building not huge laughs but a constant supply of chortles. Carl Andress’s rickety-rackety directorial approach, bothersome on Busch’s more earnestly intended occasions, this time seems entirely at ease. I prefer Halston when she bears down less heavily than she does here, and Fraser, doubling two dialect roles, sometimes thickens her accents well beyond comprehension, but both ladies got me laughing anyway. As for Busch—whose Mother Superior is essentially Auntie Mame in a wimple, with periodic seizures of Stella Dallas—his expertise at working this stylistic vein has an infallibility most popes would envy.

A more unexpected and, with one big exception, more elegantly unified comic performance comes from the cast that Keen Company’s artistic director, Carl Forsman, has assembled for the New York premiere of Michael Frayn’s 1975 play, Alphabetical Order (Clurman Theatre). Unexpected, because Keen, which claims to produce “sincere” plays, has rarely trafficked in Frayn’s kind of quick-tongued, sardonic verbal comedy; Forsman’s best directorial achievements have been notable for their documentary sobriety.

This somber grounding may help explain the fullness with which Forsman’s largely wonderful actors make Frayn’s flaky characters leap to vivid life. The scene is the library (or “morgue” as U.S. newspapermen once called it) of a small-city British newspaper in the 1970s, fiscally sinking but still proud. Librarian Lucy (Angela Reed), though apparently drowning in a chaos of paper, knows exactly where the important clips are misfiled, and exactly how to cope with the city-room slackers who daily invade her space: her on-again/off-again boyfriend, editorial writer John (William Connell); the grumpy, inarticulate old reporter, Arnold (Brad Bellamy); snoopy, sententious Nora (Margaret Daly); the flamboyant resident clown, Wally (Paul Molnar); and ancient, nattering Geoffrey (John Windsor-Cunningham).

Into this mass of chatterboxes clamoring for attention comes Lesley (Audrey Lynn Weston), the new assistant librarian, a seeming innocent whose sole desire is “to get things straight.” Predictably, by the time intermission’s over, the paper chaos has vanished, all personal relationships have been regularized, to no one’s satisfaction, and—surprise—all life has gone out of the room. At this point, Frayn tries to add, awkwardly, an extra dramatic twist, attenuating what ought to have been a brisk, funny one-act. Alphabet soup shouldn’t be watered down.

The thinning, however, doesn’t diminish either the exuberance of Frayn’s best linguistic volleys or the sparkle of Forsman’s production, catching the play’s tempo and tone with eager acuteness. Reed and Connell, at the center of the maelstrom, shine with special brilliance. The one false note, surely as much Forsman’s fault as the performer’s, is Weston’s rendering of the implacable assistant, all downturned mouth and screechy-voiced negativity, making it hard to believe the bright-eyed folk around her would take her seriously for one second.