Stage Door: <i>The Divine Sister, The Screwtape Letters, Freckleface Strawberry</i>

Charles Busch is a comic genius. Now, the talented performer has donned drag for, a religious send-up of big-budget Hollywood nun movies at the SoHo Playhouse.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Charles Busch is a comic genius, as any of his deliciously campy parodies -- from Psycho Beach Party to The Third Story -- will attest. Now, the talented performer has donned drag for The Divine Sister, a religious send-up of big-budget Hollywood nun movies at the SoHo Playhouse. For Busch, the subject matter is heaven-sent.

Set in a Pittsburgh convent school in the socially charged Sixties, the crumbling St. Veronica's is run by Mother Superior (Charles Busch). She is aided by mistress of novices and wrestling coach Sister Acacius (Julie Halston), currently besieged by a wide-eyed postulant with healing powers (Amy Rutberg), appropriately named Agnes, and a sinister new arrival Sister Walburga (Alison Fraser), a cartoon-evil German from the "mother house in Berlin."

There are plots and subplots galore; Busch has mined every cliché about cinema nuns -- from their singing to their shady pasts. Desperate for funds to keep her school open, Mother Superior corners wealthy philanthropist Mrs. Levinson (Jennifer Van Dyck). At the same time, she contends with a film producer (Jonathan Walker) who has more than a passing interest in the singular Superior, who dons ruby red lipstick and false eyelashes with gay abandon.

Busch's character projects a kooky earnestness, even as she denigrates "atheists, homosexuals and the Dave Clark Five." Sexually frustrated Acacius, in Halston's expert hands, is a scream, while Fraser's turn as both Walburga and an Irish charwoman, is a comic gem. Van Dyck is perfect as Levinson -- and all are aided by crisp, seamless direction by longtime Busch director Carl Andress. The Divine Sister is part of Busch's minor canon; it isn't as layered as Die, Mommie, Die!, but it's still great fun, zinging the Catholic Church and Hollywood with irreverence and good old-fashioned sass.

What DS sends up, The Screwtape Letters takes to heart. Author C.S. Lewis, best known to fantasy lit fans for The Chronicles of Narnia, examines good and evil from the devil's viewpoint. Screwtape (Max McLean) is a pompous senior demon incessantly dictating letters to his nephew Wormwood, charged with turning "the patient" away from Christianity and "our enemy above." Failure is not an option.

Now at the Westside Theater, The Screwtape Letters, an adaptation of the epistolary novel, is entertaining and thoughtful. In the service of evil, Screwtape gleefully enlists the tedium of good. "The safest road to hell is the gradual one," he notes, advising his nephew to push the seven deadly sins.

An orthodox Anglican, Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters in 1942 and dedicated it to his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, no stranger to literary cosmic battles. While satiric, the play's warring tones, aided by a backdrop of skulls and skewed set, are unmistakable. Screwtape is bent on damnation, a position he navigates with clever, occasionally scathing missives. Like all bureaucrats, he has a wordless underling (Elise Girardin), to carry out instructions.

At heart, the 80-minute script, adapted by Jeffrey Fiske and McLean, is a sermon on how to exploit the weakness of man and, by inversion, a cautionary tale on Christian complacency. However, one need not be any particular religion to appreciate its thrust or occasional eloquence. Though a bit static, it is smartly staged and passionately performed by McLean, who gives the devil his due.

By contrast, Freckleface Strawberry the musical based on the best-selling children's book by Julianne Moore, is wholly earthbound. The one-hour production at New World Stages is charming and conveys a powerful social message: be comfortable in your own skin. Strawberry (Hayley Podschun), a youngster teased for her red hair and freckles, longs to fit in. Her "I Hate Freckles!" number is adorable; so are her friends.

Each represents different types of kids -- athletic, loner, studious, nerdy -- who, in the course of the production, reveal their own vulnerabilities. Strawberry isn't alone in the envy department, as the clever songs "We Wanna' B Like Them" and "Lonely Girl" make clear. Gary Kupper, who wrote the music and lyrics and co-wrote the book with Rose Caiola, reinforces the upbeat message, as does Gail Pennington Crutchfield's choreography.

Freckleface Strawberry is a high-energy show that clicks with the audience, thanks to a lively cast. It promotes the importance of self-acceptance and respect without being preachy or overly saccharine. Podschun's Strawberry is a delight; so is Linda Gabler, who does triple duty as mother/teacher/friend. For fans of the book series, it's a treat.

Pre-Post Theater Restaurant: Sevilla
Opened in 1941 to cater to the influx of Spanish residents, Sevilla remains a local West Village favorite. This homey restaurant, with intimate tables and booths, retains the original bar and wood ceiling and soft lighting from its days as a Depression-era Irish pub. Walls are lined with paintings of matadors and flamenco dancers. Owner Jose Lloves and his staff, who have been with him for decades, put a premium on service. Start with the sangria, which has a kick, then choose from an array of delicious seafood or chicken dishes. The excellent paella is cooked and served in a deep pot; the mariscada with green sauce is mixed with olive oil, parsley, garlic and onions, while the red snapper is roasted with shrimp and green pepper. Chicken extremeña, pollo ajillo and veal Sevilla are house favorites. Begin with the Spanish omelet (tortilla), the traditional dish of Madrid; it's perfection. As is the arroz con leche (rice pudding) and the light, tasty almond cake. The Michelin Guide has recommended Sevilla since 2006, and it's easy to see why: This charming restaurant offers some of the best Spanish food outside of Spain.

62 Charles St., New York, NY

Support HuffPost

Popular in the Community