You might feel just a wee bit guilty laughing at some of the things in "The Divine Sister," the ever-so-irreverent Charles Busch comedy now getting an enjoyable spin at Fells Point Corner Theatre. But you're more likely to find the author's satiric wit habit-forming.
Busch, whose playwriting credits include "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" and "Psycho Beach Party," sends up just about every nun movie in this clever, maybe even slightly subversive work.
Of course, we get a guitar-playing nun, one who leads a simple, "Do-Re-Me"-type song (only with lyrics that wouldn't be suitable for a children's singalong). Allusions to more recent nun flicks also turn up, in one way or another. Could you doubt there would be a hint of "Doubt"? And it's not just nuns swooping through — there's more than a touch of "The Da Vinci Code."
Above all, "The Divine Sister" can be considered the wildest possible sequel to "The Trouble With Angels," the 1960s film starring Rosalind Russell as a kind and caring, conservative mother superior. Her spirit infuses nearly every scene of Busch's play. In addition to the rosary-bearing Russell, her smart-cookie character from the classic film "His Girl Friday" gets conjured up in a big way. Russell's hardly nun-like role in "Auntie Mame" is amusingly referenced, too.
The myriad cinematic allusions in "The Divine Sister" act as threads holding together a crazy quilt of a plot set in 1966 Pittsburgh. The focus is on St. Veronica's, a financially troubled school where the nuns have secrets and the convent's new postulant apparently has visions.
A succession of twists and twists-within-twists, not to mention a hefty helping of raunchy humor, keep "The Divine Sister" spinning, as Mother Superior tries to find a way to save the school.
The play's off-Broadway run in 2010 had the terrific bonus of Busch, a colorful actor at home in drag, performing as St. Veronica's Mother Superior. He was such a fun nun, I went to see that show twice. I didn't think "The Divine Sister" would work too well without him. Turns out I should have had more faith.
The Steve Goldklang-directed Fells Point Corner Theatre production, with a cute set (Roy Steinman) that helps the action whirl along, gets quite a boost from Steven Shriner. His Mother Superior looms large from the get-go.
Shriner demonstrates a flair for camp, a knack for doing a double-take, and an effortless way of flicking his veil to make a point. He's especially good at delivering with casual authority such pronouncements as: "My dear, we are living in a time of great social change. We must do everything in our power to stop it."
Shriner proves equally adept at switching gears for a flashback that reveals this nun's unholy past, when she was an ace newspaper reporter parrying with a persistent competitor, Jeremy (ably played by Tom Lodge).
The role of Sister Acacius, the school's streetwise, heavily New Yawk-accented wrestling coach, fits Holly Gibbs as tightly as her wimple. She's a terrific foil for Kathryne Daniels as the mysterious Sister Walburga, sent from Berlin to check on the convent and apparently prone to an impure thought or two. Daniels also reveals some mean lung power, as folks sitting in the first few rows will discover.
Most of the cast gets dual roles, an extra opportunity for scene-gobbling that each one clearly relishes. Daniels is especially funny as an Irish cleaning woman. And then there's Lynda McClary. She makes an imposing Mrs. Levinson, a philanthropist who seems ripe for a fall, and also shines as Timothy, a terribly confused schoolboy.
And Anne Shoemaker brings plenty of sweetness (along with some wonderfully spooky eyes) to the role of Agnes, whose supposed miraculous powers have everyone at St. Veronica's on edge.
The real miracle in "The Divine Sister" is Busch's wicked dialogue.