Playwright and renowned drag performer Charles Busch has donned an impressive number of female garments over his long career. In his latest work, The Divine Sister, now playing at the SoHo Playhouse Off-Broadway, he wears an outfit only a select few have ever worn: a nun's habit. "It's nice to play a nun," laughs Busch. "You don't have to wear a girdle."
Busch plays a very embattled Mother Superior in Pittsburgh in 1966. "I've got a million things going on, causing my tsuris. I've got a postulant who sees visions, and a former lover [who] wants me to renounce my vows. I've got a strange Catholic sect determined to find the true Messiah, and sexual hysteria amongst my girls."
The play has been on Busch's mind for some years. Like many of his previous works, it grew out of his love of Hollywood's golden age and its sometimes-melodramatic leading ladies, who, when they were looking to even out their images — and perhaps collect an award or two — often reached for the wimple.
Among the films Busch drew on are such self-important tear-jerkers as "The Song of Bernadette," "The Bells of St. Mary's," "The Singing Nun" and "Agnes of God." "I've always loved any Hollywood film with nuns in them," says Busch. "I'm Jewish, but I was raised without any religion at all. As a kid, I was just fascinated by all these films. I thought it would be interesting charting Hollywood's treatment of spiritual matters over the course of the decades."
As always, Busch channels the personas of some of his screen idols, like Loretta Young (who was a nun in "Come to the Stable"), Ingrid Bergman (star of "The Bells of St. Mary's") and especially Rosalind Russell. "There's a certain element of this play that is an homage to Russell's career. There's a flashback to before I joined the order, when I was a girl reporter, a little 'His Girl Friday.'" (One famous cinematic nun, Peggy Wood's ponderous Mother Superior in "The Sound of Music," is not an ingredient in The Divine Sister's theatrical stew. "She's not much fun, is she?" says Busch.)
Busch began writing The Divine Sister as an antidote to a cable television film script that he had been assigned to write and was "torturing" him. (It never got made.) "To keep my sanity, before I began writing the television script, I would work on this zany, campy play." He showed the finished product to his regular director, Carl Andress, who suggested it be put on as soon as possible. Busch agreed, but said to Andress, "I wish we could do it in a way that was purely for our own pleasure, with no pressure at all."
The answer to that wish was a two-week developmental run in late 2009 at Theatre for the New City, to which critics were not invited.
"Since my motive was so pure, I think it's one of the funniest things I've written," says Busch. Word of the hilarity on stage got out through Facebook postings, according to Busch, and the run quickly sold out. "I don't think I really understood the power of Facebook before that," he says with a laughs.