SHORTS OR SHROUD? Mancini, Kenner, and Wiseman.
Pity the poor nun. The hours are terrible, she's the butt of penguin jokes, and most people have gotten their impression of her from old movies. Charles Busch's The Divine Sister is a side-splitting takeoff on the genre, as 2nd Story Theatre's staging demonstrates (through May 20).
Audience members filing in get to hear The Sound of Music in the background as notable Hollywood nuns flicker on screen before them — Ingrid Bergman and her beauty in The Bells of St. Mary's, Meg Tilly and her stigmatas in Agnes of God, etc. Although Busch is a parodist as well as a drag queen, his take on the black and white life is as good-natured as all of the above.
Under the snappy direction of Ed Shea, the cast delivers uproariously. We get a Mother Superior in drag and immediately hide our knuckles from the ruler we fear she'll pull out. There's a furrowed-browed German nun we expect to break out in goose steps any minute. And eventually we see the most innocent of the sisters temporarily lose her faith and turn from a lapdog into a Rottweiler.
That sweet young thing is Agnes (Ashley Kenner), easily as wide-eyed as her filmic namesake. Even wider, actually, since she sees heavenly visions and her ability to help with headaches without aspirin has convinced her she has healing powers. In her eyes, a pair of boy's underpants from the laundry isn't simply stained, it's bearing the image of St. Clare. The cynical wrestling coach Sister Acacius (Rae Mancini), on the other hand, is convinced that the girl needs a mental institution rather than work at St. Veronica's Convent School, in Pittsburgh, where she is a newly arrived postulant, a nun-in-waiting.
The school is falling apart and needs to be torn down, so Mother Superior (J.M. Richardson) appeals to the generosity of a local philanthropist, Mrs. Levinson (Margaret Melozzi). The nun generously declares that the woman shouldn't be condemned for the death of her savior ("Others, perhaps"). And though Mrs. Levinson says she donates to a long list of atheist organizations and that the Levinsons have not been Jewish for several generations, Mother Superior sticks to her first impression, insisting: "You must not be, shall we say, unfamiliar with the bitter gall of poverty. I can see you as a young girl in the shtetl, grinding with a mortar and pestle your gefilte fish for the evening's Sabbath." But they are in social-conservative agreement, Mother Superior having recently penned a book titled The Middle Ages — So Bad?, and Mrs. Levinson feels that their mutual mission is to save society from homosexuals and the Dave Clark Five. But the wealthy woman's cooperation will eventually come from a source more in the farce tradition, where unexpected coincidences can be expected, and you never know when someone will turn out to be a long-lost relative of somebody.
Yes, the laughs here come less from the plot then from the silly encounters and ludicrous conversations. Jeremy (Jim Sullivan) gives a lengthy, graphic description of his family's male members, and we're not talking names and faces. A conspiracy theory of historical and hysterical proportions is revealed concerning the other J.C., Jesus's sister Joyce. We even get a flashback to the time when Mother Superior was a lusty, buxom crime reporter, and now her beau of the time shows up and tries to rekindle her interest in other habits.