SISTER ACT Even people unfamiliar with the filmography of Hayley Mills will probably get a good laugh from The Divine Sister.
Larry Coen directs SpeakEasy Stage's Boston premiere of Charles Busch's The Divine Sister (at the BCA Roberts Studio Theatre through November 19) this time without Busch's gender-bending talents in the starring role of Mother Superior. Varla Jean Merman, alter-ego of Jeffery Roberson, heads up the convent in this feel-good parody of cinematic depictions of nuns, from Angels with Dirty Faces to Doubt. Roberson's spin on the character is reminiscent of Busch's comedic style, although with more playful naïveté than straight-faced sarcasm.
Although Busch's comedy segues abruptly from jokes about flatulence to lesbian sex to anti-Semitism, all of the characters maintain the sweet childlike innocence required to make even rough-edged humor endearing. Most jokes work even better if you've seen any of the nun films that Busch is lovingly parodying. It also helps if you're a bit of an innocent yourself — all of the play's characters seem certain that maraschino cherry juice looks identical to blood, and you'll have to take their word for it.
SpeakEasy's cast is strong enough to carry off even the corniest sequences, including the show's single, somewhat random musical number, in which Roberson shows off his falsetto, hikes up his habit, and merrily can-cans about the stage. The song's a duet with Sasha Castroverde, who plays Agnes, a wide-eyed young postulant who sees saintly faces in every laundry stain and believes God has given her healing powers. Those powers work only when the plot calls for it, and even then they're a bit unreliable. As for the plot, it has more than a few confusing contradictions, but Roberson, Castroverde, and the rest are charming enough to make up for narrative sins.
The cast includes several other stock characters from Hollywood nun flicks: Kathy St. George plays spy-turned-sister Sister Walburga, who worships a slightly different messiah than the rest of the Catholics. Her Da Vinci Code-esque subplot includes Christopher Michael Brophy as co-conspirator Brother Venerius; the pair of undercover ascetics make excellent use of the show's rolling set-pieces as they push through the convent's underground corridors and basements in search of a secret tomb.
Brophy also plays Mother Superior'slong-lost lover Jeremy, now a film executive seeking out stories for the silver screen. St. Veronica's Convent grants his wish, since the place seems to be packed with movie material. Ellen Colton plays Jeremy's family friend, Mrs. Levinson, an aging atheist whose Jewish name and lack of belief in God make her the butt of many a joke — the nuns of St. Veronica's may be pious, but they lack certain social graces.
Colton doubles as a young boy named Timothy, whose budding homosexuality and athletic ineptitude make him a handful for the school's gym teacher, Sister Acacious, rambunctiously played by Paula Plum. All of these characters have a few skeletons in their closets, and although the secrets themselves don't much matter — nor make sense — Busch sets up the dominos nicely for a long, hilarious climax that concludes with a rollicking reprisal of the musical number.