SpeakEasy's "The Divine Sister": And Then There Were None

It is a dark and stormy night. It is Pittsburgh in 1966, and the venerable Convent of Saint Veronica is in imminent danger of crumbling into ruins. If this were Ibsen, this might be perceived as a metaphorical tiger at the gates, but this is Charles Busch, and his “The Divine Sister” has no such pretensions of satirizing any religious icons but instead the long harrowed, if not hallowed, history of Hollywood stereotypes. One by one, in inevitable Agatha Christie mode, Busch manages to roast a goodly, if not godly, number of these memorable madams, from Julie Andrews to Ingrid Bergman, and, more darkly, the whole coven of “Black Narcissus”, until there‘s not a single nun left unskewered. It’s not the author’s theological baggage that’s on display here, as he freely admits to no such upbringing, but an obvious affection for these historical and hysterical ladies.

That’s not to say that Mother Superior (and she is unmistakably that) is some clueless cardboard creation. While she’s hilariously funny in the quite capable hands of Jeffery Roberson (aka Varla Jean Merman, for those of you in the habit of keeping score), she’s no dope and not easily duped. As she explains it all for you at the beginning of the play, the good sisters are “living in a time of great social change; we must do everything in our power to stop it”.

How Mother Superior, aka Susan (don’t ask) manages to triumph over the course of a fast-paced uninterrupted one hundred minutes is best left to a theatergoer to discover entirely on her or his own. The fun of the work is in the multitude of backstories, with enough subplots and sub-subplots to fill several evenings at the theater. Suffice it to say that “The Divine Sister” is like Gilbert and Sullivan on speed.

In lesser earthly hands, this could be over-the-top camp, and it comes perilously close at times, but the writing, the direction (by Larry Coen) and especially the fang-in-cheek acting by the aforementioned Jeffery/Varla Jean and the entire cast (six in all, most performing more than one role) save us from such a penance. In the nunnery, there are Sasha Castroverde’s Agnes (of God?) who is no stranger to the sound of music, Kathy St. George’s Sister Walburga, seemingly living out some code other than DiVinci, and Paula Plum’s Sister Acacius, whose street-wise sister is an amalgam of so many allusions and illusions that she encapsulates generations of the celluloid-ly saintly. Add to the mix Ellen Colton’s atheistic Mrs. Levinson (yes, no religious faiths were omitted in the making of this “movie”) and Christopher Michael Brophy’s Brother Venerius, not to mention the other roles they play which will go unmentioned here lest what plot threads there are be prematurely unraveled. There’s not a clinker in the bunch. The same can be said for the set (by Christina Todesco), lighting (by Daniel H. Jentzen), costumes (by Charles Schoonmaker) and sound (by Arshan Gailus), none of which would be out of place in your basic B movie. It’s all so perfectly pitched.

To mistake this for just another drag show or an exercise in low comedy could be sinful for any mortal. For any serious theatergoer, there can be but one exhortation. Get thee to a funnery.


SpeakEasy's "Next Fall": Full of Grace

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “Next Fall”, the Tony-nominated play by Goeffrey Nauffts, is a truly manipulative piece of theater; what starts out as a comedy gradually transforms into a serious examination of some significant contemporary issues. It manages to navigate a very tricky balance among a cast of six characters who one minute crack wise and the next minute find themselves facing what first seems like an unbreachable divide as the play explores current expressions of faith and disbelief. On one level, it can be seen as yet another tale, full of wit and fury, of coming out of the closet. On its more profound level, it’s really about accepting the beliefs of others rather than demonizing them. The challenge for an audience is to accept the fact that faith, rather than being discarded like the proverbial baby with the bath water, is dealt with and dueled with, in a fundamentally personal manner. One has to believe that Luke (Dan Roach), one of the two main characters, has somehow managed to keep his deeply felt evangelical Christian beliefs while living with his older atheist lover, intensely hypochondriacal Adam (Will McGarrahan). Theirs is a truly odd coupling indeed, separated by age as well as value systems. What’s harder to accept, in 2011, is that, not only has a grown man like Luke been unable to come out to his parents, but that he is conflicted about the incongruity of his faith and his lifestyle and unable to reach a mature resolution.

When first encountered by this reviewer in its Broadway form, with the exact same text, this leap of faith was not entirely successful, though extremely moving. This time, in the hands of director Scott Edmiston and a very believable cast, it feels more natural. Among its many surprises is just how much funnier it seems. After the cutest of meetings, where Luke, an actor working as a waiter, gives Adam the Heimlich maneuver rather than a pickup line, it’s no time before the two have moved in together despite some immediate danger signals. Adam has no problem being completely out; Luke declaims that “we’re all sinners, it’s human nature; but as long as you’ve accepted Christ”, everything will be alright in the end. Enter Adam’s boss and friend Holly (Deb Martin) who notes that Adam is guilty of “self-loathing by association”, and Luke’s former buddy Brandon (Kevin Kaine), also an evangelical Christian and also attracted to men, who can live with same-gender attraction but draws the line at love. Then we meet Luke’s parents from Florida, divorced for twenty years, Arlene (Amelia Broome) and Butch (Robert Walsh), who finally meet Adam as a result of a tragic event in Luke’s life. It’s significant that Nauffts chose not AIDS but a traffic accident as a crisis, thus emphasizing the universality of random tragedy. Now the larger dilemmas are, whose place is it to tell the parents about Luke’s lifestyle, and who gets to make life or death decisions on his behalf.

In such a small ensemble of extraordinary actors, it’s difficult to single anyone out, but it should be noted that Will McGarrahan and Amelia Broome have never been better, and their communication proves the most memorable moments. They’re aided by the clever lighting shifts by Karen Perlow and simple but effective scenery by Janie E. Howland. As the character Arlene puts it when remembering Luke’s performance in “Our Town”, “there wasn’t much in the way of scenery”, but somehow they made it effective, even if she’d forgotten the point of it. As Holly responds, it was about “how precious life is even while they’re living it”. Both could equally be said of “Next Fall”, especially in Edmiston’s capable hands.

By the end of the play, Luke’s opening line (“we shall all be changed”) proves quite prophetic, as all of the characters have changed, in varying degrees. Adam says to Butch: “Luke wasn’t afraid”, he had certainty. “He looked at me…..finally, I believed”. In what, the audience is left to debate. In the very last line, Adam’s deceptively simple response to a call from Luke’s half brother Ben is profoundly simple: “This is…..My name is Adam”. The brilliance of the work is that the audience can anticipate what the balance of their conversation will be like. Nauffts has stated that his play is about everyone grasping for grace. This production is life-affirmingly, unquestionably, full of grace.