Bowing at the Feet at of Uptown Players' Divine Sister, Plus a Breakdown of Bath House's FIT

Shout hallelujah! Come on, get happy! Coy Covington is back in a Charles Busch comedy at Uptown Players at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

The Divine Sister presents the divine Mr. Covington, Dallas' finest interpreter of Busch's en travisti roles, decked out in full penguin garb as the preternaturally sunny Mother Superior of St. Veronica's convent school, Pittsburgh, 1966. It's a part that fits Covington like a well-tailored wimple, and the production is an answer to our fervent prayers for a gut-busting stage comedy.

Busch plays are borne of old movie genres, and The Divine Sister, directed by Andi Allen, sends up those "funny nun" flicks of the '60s, such as The Trouble with Angels. In this one, Mother Superior must fight to save her school from crumbling, with the help of an old flame (Kevin Moore, who's perfect as the sort of po-faced hero played by John Gavin and Gig Young back in the day). Sidekick Sister Acacius (Janette Oswald in the Mary Wickes part) stomps around in high-top sneakers, coaches the kids' wrestling team and lusts openly for pretty Sister Walburga (Lee Jamison in a role Stella Stevens might've wanted). But Walburga, speaking in a cartoon German accent, may not really be a nun. Could she weally be und shpy?

It's as silly, intentionally so, as any episode of Sally Field's Flying Nun. And, oh, if only they'd rigged some wires to Covington and sent him soaring over the stage in tribute to Field's Sister Bertrille. But perhaps that would have been out of order in this particular convent comedy.

The playwright hides plenty of other Easter eggs in Divine Sister's dialogue, however, referencing more Hollywood brides of Christ than you can shake a wooden ruler at. Covington's character enters the opening scene on a bicycle, a la Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Mother Superior plunks a guitar and lip-syncs a syrupy tune, like Debbie Reynolds in The Singing Nun, and coaches baseball like Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary's. She can also find a key light faster than Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette. If you're really paying attention, you'll get the nods to nun noir Black Narcissus ("Sister Clothilde? Helloooo?") and to inside-the-convent thrillers Doubt and Agnes of God. Busch leaves no veil unturned.

Covington, kicking out the hem of his habit to show off the sequins (spot-on costumes are by Suzi Cranford), delivers every line with impeccably timed snap and in that tremulous voice of glamorous stars of yesteryear like Rosalind Russell (the head nun in Trouble with Angels) and Celeste Holm (a nun in 1949's Come to the Stable). He'll often hold an extra second or two to build to a laugh. "My dear, we are living in a time of great social change," announces Covington's Mother Superior. "We must do everything in our power to stop it."

Allen's six-member cast handles Busch's tongue-twirling spews of words and breathless pace with impressive ease. Except for Covington, they all double in other roles. Moore also plays Brother Venerius, a demented monk right out of The DaVinci Code. Jamison, stretching her comedy wings as Sister Walburga, turns up as an Irish scrubwoman who could be on the lam from a Carol Burnett sketch. Mary-Margaret Pyeatt plays doddering atheist benefactor Mrs. Levinson (she's Violet Venable in Lady Astor's wardrobe) and then is nearly unrecognizable as a lisping teenage boy in a ball cap. Teri Rogers has a two-in-one as Agnes, a virginal postulant who hears voices and sees the faces of saints in dirty laundry; in the second act, she loses her vocation and vacates the convent for a life of slutty boots and teased hair.

The plot, such as it is, is inconsequential. Busch just has a good time commenting on how Hollywood has used the image of nuns for good and for ill. He played Mother Superior when the play debuted in New York two years ago. But in Coy Covington, Uptown Players have found their most righteous performer of Busch's leading-lad-as-lady characters (he's starred in a dozen of them for this troupe). So get thee to this nunnery. Missing Divine Sister would be a mortal sin.

The 14th annual Festival of Independent Theatres is under way at the Bath House Cultural Center. Highlight of its opening weekend — which included four of the fest's rotation of eight short plays — was WingSpan Theatre's staging of Edward Albee's Counting the Ways. (Yes, the playwright's name is in the title now. It's some sort of Oprah-fication of theater credits.)

In a cheery voice, a wife (Lulu Ward), sitting across the table from her husband (Adrian Churchill), asks "Do you love me?"

He: Hmm? Pardon?

She: Do you love me?

He: Why do you ask?

She: Well, because I want to know.

He: Right now?

She: Well ... yes. Or ... no, no, not really. (Short pause.) Yes.

He: Of course.

She: Well ... good.

Lights out. Lights up. There is talk of parsley and walnuts, of rose petals and twin beds replacing the marital double. He can't find a clean shirt. She doesn't remember if they have three children or four.

In 20 vignettes, some just one word in length, the play has the couple play out scenes from their marriage. It's The Honeymooners filtered through East Coast elitist attitudes. It's a vaudeville-style series of blackouts depicting swallowed emotions amid rapier thrusts of personal insults.

"Do you suppose stuffing it in me is something I enjoy?" says the wife when the husband is offstage. "Do you? Putting it in me like a wad of dough, hoping it'll rise to the occasion?"

Nobody does absurdist wit with the whiplash bite of Albee. Hard to imagine this one done better than the way these actors and this director are doing it.

One Thirty Productions' entry at FIT is a misstep, a rare one from this company whose niche is finding snazzy little scripts that say something to audiences of the age that remembers D-Day but is still with it enough to Tweet the grandkids.

Making Contact, by celebrity biographer Patricia Bosworth, is a 1990 one-act that feels as dated as a Matlock episode. Recently widowed older writer Polly (Gene Raye Price) is being photographed in her dingy New York sublet by a one-time big-deal shooter named Abner (Jason Leyva). The guy's a troll in grungy jeans, bragging about how he once hung out with Vidal and Mailer at Elaine's, the iconic Manhattan bar. He spends more time name-dropping than checking his light meter, fumbling his cameras like an amateur (or maybe that's just the under-rehearsed actor). Abner's energy is middle-aged Richard Dreyfuss, over-caffeinated, unshaven and rude.

Yadda, yadda, Abner makes Polly strip down to her bra. She cries and he leaves. You won't like him or this talky, dull little play. FIT is designed to allow small companies like One Thirty to take chances with different material. But this one just doesn't fit the bill.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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