The Divine Sister
By Charles Busch
Nutley Little Theatre
47 Erie Place, Nutley
By GWEN OREL
They don’t fly, and they don’t sing.
But the nuns in the 2010 play “The Divine Sister” by Charles Busch may remind you of the singing nun, of Maria in “The Sound of Music” anyway.
That’s deliberate, said George Seylaz, who is directing the play at Nutley Little Theatre (NLT). Busch was inspired by Hollywood tropes. “The Song of Bernadette,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” “Agnes of God” and even “Doubt” are in there too.
Of course, none of those movies feature a Mother Superior played by a man, or a visiting German nun who suggests a threesome with another nun and Jesus.
Seylaz and Patrick Horan, who plays Mother Superior, spoke following a dress rehearsal last week. At times action stopped for a wig fix. Music cues punched up a joke. One of the nuns stomps off through the house after mishearing the words “Can’t face” and thinking she’s being insulted.
In the play, Mother Superior, formerly a journalist, trying to save her convent in Pittsburgh, while dealing with a postulant who sees visions, a mysterious German nun, a journalist from her past who’s seeking film rights, and a sensitive little boy. And Mother Superior is guarding her own secret.
Busch, who came to fame with “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” in 1984, is known for a camp style, and off-color gags, along with the comic love letters to Hollywood. He also wrote the “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” which won Linda Lavin a Tony Award in 2001.
That play was a comedy, but not a parody.
Seylaz, who brought “The Divine Sister” to NLT, said that one of the things he really appreciates about it is that it has “broad humor, but it still has heart. It still has connection to the human condition to it.”
This production is Seylaz’ first time at NLT, following a public reading of the play there a few years ago.
Patrick Horan, who plays Mother Superior, has performed at NLT before. He said he’s not too worried that the show is too downtown for a community theater audience.
The season, Horan said, always mixes crowd pleasers, classic dramas and something edgy. Horan, who is an English teacher in Morristown, has played drag roles before. He loved all the “nun movies” growing up, and was intrigued by the challenge of this role.
“George has been great at trying to help us find the line between being sincere but being really campy, and it’s got to be both at the same time you know,” he said. “So it’s very stylized and sometimes maddening because you’re trying to think about how do you want to say the line but you’ve got to say it it’s turning stage left or else you know it’s not funny.”
Seylaz said that what he does could be considered melodrama as much as camp, so it’s heightened, rather than being merely silly. “I’ve been telling them from day one, you’ve got to take whatever the text is telling you. And take whatever that emotion is and amplify it much larger than you would in any other play or certainly in real life. And by amplifying the emotion that’s what makes it have that broad campy feel to it because it’s so over the top,” he said. But it’s delivered from a real place.
Busch played the role originally, and often writes roles for himself: it was a way of getting cast, Seylaz said. And if Mother Superior were played by a woman, it just wouldn’t be as funny, he continued.
And funny is important.
“The thing that I would hope people take away most from the play is just, lighten up,” he said. “Laugh more. Laugh more. Even the things that that that piss you off. If you can learn to laugh at it as opposed to just being angry at it all the time, life will be so much better.”
Sure, people could choose to be offended at the sexual banter among the nuns, or seeing two men kissing. But there are warnings about adult language, Seylaz said.
“I’m predicting that some of the audience will be shocked early on, and then they’re going to get sucked into the story,” Horan said.
“It does have a heart,” Seylaz agreed. “It does have those messages of, the important things are family, finding your place in the world. Feeling like you belong somewhere. That is. That is certainly Mother Superior’s journey from start to finish is you know even though she’s risen to the ranks of you know as high as she can in nunhood, she doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere until she finally discovers…”
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Horan added that while the characters began as stereotypes, the crazy hit woman, et cetera, by the end of the show all the characters have softened, and “it’s all about family. You know, finding yourself within the family unit. So it’s it’s an interesting piece because I think that’s what the audiences are going to walk away with.”
Seylaz laughed. “We’re all going to die.