But that’s not the way HotCity celebrates the season, and we are lucky for that. In its holiday shows, the irreverence is bracing, the humor abundant, and the eggnog always spiked. I think they’ve outdone themselves this year with an absolutely hilarious production of Charles Busch’s The Divine Sister directed by HotCity’s Artistic Director Marty Stanberry.
Busch isn’t exactly known for subtlety; titles like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party, and Die, Mommie, Die (produced by this company in 2010) indicate that we shouldn’t expect anyone to start singing “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” in this latest sendup of, well, lots of stuff, but mostly movies, and yes, The Bells of St. Mary’s (sequel to Going My Way) is one of them. You’ll have fun seeing how many allusions you can catch, and they are numerous.
The plot is simple on the surface: It is Pittsburgh in April, 1966. Nuns are still in habits and Vatican II is in session, but the old church traditions still stand. Mother Superior and her friend Sister Acacius visit the wealthy philanthropist, Mrs. Levinson, to try to talk her into donating her big house to be used as a new parish school. Even though she is a “Jewess,” Mother believes she might help out. Meanwhile, a German nun is visiting, a young postulant has visions of Blessed St. Clare in dirty underpants. . . . and we’re off! Mother is played by John Flack in nun drag (a Busch convention, and he played Mother himself when the play debuted); Acacius is a foul-mouthed New “Yawker” (Kirsten Wylder); the German Sister Walburga (Lavonne Byers) has more on her mind than observation, and before the end of the evening, if you’re not exhausted from laughing, then you’d better see if your sense of humor is on the fritz.
I can only give a sampling of the clever touches Stanberry and his team of veteran actors have come up with. All the characters are played absolutely straight. There’s no obvious winking at the audience to let us know they’re in on the joke. Mother herself probably most closely resembles the late-career Rosalind Russell in her Trouble With Angels/Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows period. This is reinforced by Mother’s previous life as Susan Appleyard, girl reporter, who falls in love with a rival, Jeremy (Chopper Leifeit) suggesting His Girl Friday. Susie Wall is appropriately arch as the rich atheist Mrs. Levinson (who does not practice her faith tradition) and ridiculously effective as “Timmy,” the little boy who Mother tries to help learn to bat so he can “make the team.” Timmy has been bullied, but well, you’ll see why. Throughout, young Sister Agnes (Alyssa Ward) is going around healing and getting stigmata (sorta) and whatnot.
Leifheit is also the sleazy Brother Venerius who is in league with Walburga in a Da Vinci Code-style subplot, and I will reveal no more of that here. Byers nearly steals the show is Mrs. MacDuffie, the ancient cleaning woman at the Convent who knows everyone’s secrets, but then Wylder steals it back every time she opens her mouth. Through it all, however, Flack reigns supreme. He is shamelessly overacting, of course, but he is mesmerizing in his part. His line delivery is a cross between Jack Benny and Sally Field in her “Gidget/Flying Nun” days. Everyone is the show is terrific and could teach master classes in comic timing, but Flack is, as he should be, first among equals.
The set is versatile and clever, especially considering the small Kranzberg space, and Maureen Berry lights it well. Jane Sullivan has attended to the costume details: Sister Walburga is perfectly attired in a neat habit and wimple with black patent leather boots giving a Colonel Klink touch to the outfit, while Mother’s, Agnes’ and Acacius’ garments look worn, reflecting the Order’s poverty. Wall looks period perfect in a houndstooth Chanel-style suit and blonde wig styled in a 1960’s bouffant, but also is adorable in Timmy’s 1940s inspired gear. And Patrick Burks demonstrates that sometimes sound designers are absolutely essential.
I had the best time with Sister and the gang, but there is just one caveat: The language and subject matter are decidedly mature, so keep it in mind. But, hey, you knew that. It’s HotCity, right? If you want to go, don’t delay. Word on the street is that the Friday and Saturday performances were sold out before last night’s preview. For more information: www.hotcitytheatre.org.