Charles Busch’s latest work of rarefied lunacy takes comic aim at Hollywood’s depiction of nuns. The set of St. Veronica’s, cheaply yet inventively designed by B.T. Whitehill, looks like a shoestring high school effort, with sponges standing in for bricks on the pillars of the front gates, and stained-glass windows depicting steaks being grilled and a garden watered. But it’s meant to be a run-down parish—think of The Bells of St. Mary’s. No matter: the action of this canny satire belies its shabby look. It is sublime nonsense whose pleasures outweigh those of many bigger-budget productions. Busch, an expert on Hollywood melodrama (he’s provided authoritative commentary for Warner Brothers DVDs of The Bad Seed and Dead Ringer), slips in references to The Sound of Music, The Trouble with Angels, Agnes of God and even The Da Vinci Code, but there’s also a snappy homage to His Girl Friday in a flashback that lets Busch appear in the regular drag he's famous for. If the more beatific moments of the actor’s performance as Mother Superior of a bizarre convent don’t remind you of Loretta Young, you may connect his occasionally throatier growl to Rosalind Russell (the star of both Trouble and His Girl Friday).
Busch has surrounded himself with equally comic cohorts. Mother Superior’s second in command is Sister Acacius, equipped by Julie Halston with a thick New Yawk accent and simmering Sturm und Drang. Whether she’s on a tirade about the propensity of young postulant Agnes (Amy Rutberg) to see the face of a saint in stained underwear and perform miracles; listening to the sexual exploits of an old friend (the strapping and lively Jonathan Walker, who doubles as a slouching, nefarious monk); or taking exception to an unprintable phrase that she’s misheard from Mother Superior, Halston is a riot.
Mother Superior must contend not only with Agnes and Acacius, but with a visiting nun from the mother house in Berlin. Voiced by Alison Fraser with a thick Germanic accent seemingly filtered through a dying kazoo, the suspicious Sister Walburga, who wears black gloves, radiates menace. Later on Fraser has the opportunity to do an outrageous Irish accent as a slatternly cleaning woman (dressed by Fabio Toblini in a sweater and skirt, with outrageously pendulous breasts; it appears to be the designer’s homage to Agnes Moorehead in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, although it makes Moorehead’s costume look elegant). The actress is vocally brilliant at both.
The convoluted plot defies explication. Suffice it to say, it involves saving the convent by getting money from a notoriously stingy atheist, Mrs. Morris Levinson; fending off the plot of an evil albino monk with a secret that could shake the foundations of Christianity; and discovering the real parents of not one, but two, orphans. And, of course, there must be an interlude or two for Mother Superior to pick up a guitar and sing a song. At times the plot seems just a bit overburdened, but under Carl Andress's direction, the cast brings a high level of energy and commitment to the proceedings, and the parody never becomes tiresome.
Busch’s script gives everyone a plateful of comic opportunities: Walker and Levinson have a scene reading a letter from Sister Acacius in which each gets to do an impression of her. Levinson also plays a young convent student, a boy who endures teasing and bullying from students who call him a faggot, and Mother Superior offers him some indulgent solace.
Though Busch has great affection for the subject matter, he also saves a few juicy comic digs at Catholicism for himself. “A new clinic just opened around the corner, devoted to women’s health and reproductive choices,” Mother Superior informs an old flame. “We’ll see what we can do about that!”