By Anthony Stoeckert
Anyone who goes to see Charles Busch’s “The Divine Sister” during its run at the Bucks County Playhouse is going to expect a night of big laughs. But to hear Jennifer Van Dyck talk about it, apparently the people on stage will be having as much fun as the audience.
”We’re having so much fun it’s almost embarrassing to admit,” says Ms. Van Dyck, who’s appearing in “The Divine Sister” in New Hope, Pennsylvania, July 22-Aug. 13. “We literally are giggling our way through rehearsal. It’s been five years since we did it, so we had to relearn the lines, but they’re all very familiar.”
The production features most of the performers from the original 2010 production in New York, including Mr. Busch himself. Also in the cast are Alison Fraser, Julie Halston, Ms. Van Dyck, and Jonathan Walker. New to the show is Erin Maguire.
Ms. Van Dyck says the actors have been struggling to keep straight faces during rehearsals, for two reasons: the play itself, and because they all know how to make each other laugh.
”The play is a mash-up of every nun movie that’s ever been made, from ‘The Bells of St. Mary’ to ‘The Sound of Music’ to ‘Black Narcissus,’” Ms. Van Dyck says. “And we all have some pretty outrageous characters that we play but we have to play them straight. But when you’ve been away from them for five years and you come back, and you realize just how much you enjoy your fellow actors’ performances, that is what is cracking us up.”
Something else that is making them laugh are memories of things that went wrong during the original production. Like the time lights fell when Ms. Van Dyck was making a costume change backstage.
”I was late for my entrance because of trying to stupidly tell the stage manager about the lights that were falling, and the entire cast thought I had died because it was a very fast change where I have to run around and come on in no time flat,” she says, adding that she did get back on stage and the play went on.
Ms. Van Dyck says a key to Mr. Busch’s work is the writer’s relationship with director Carl Andress.
”That kind of collaboration is somewhat of a rarity but a wonderful thing that happens in theater,” Ms. Van Dyck says. “There’s kind of a shorthand that they can operate in and there’s a foundation that the rest of us start from. It makes for a great working environment and I think that’s part of why we’re having so much fun.”
”The Divine Sister” shares insights into the real lives that nuns lead (well, real in Mr. Busch’s imagination) through riffs on all sorts of movies. In reviewing the New York run in “The New York Times,” Ben Brantley, called it “Mr. Busch’s freshest, funniest work in years, perhaps decades.”
Mr. Busch’s plays include “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” which opened in 1984. In his plays, he’s poked fun at beach movies (“Psycho Beach Party”) and classic Hollywood divas (“Die, Mommie, Die!”). His satires often are outrageous and often feature Mr. Busch in drag.
Mr. Busch also had a mainstream hit with 2000’s “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” which received a Tony nomination for best play, and which was revived by the Bucks Playhouse in 2013.
Ms. Van Dyck has acted in several of Mr. Busch’s plays — seven productions of four plays. The first play of Mr. Busch’s she appeared in was the 2008 comedy, “The Third Story.”
”He didn’t know my work until he cast me in the play,” she says. “He had written this fantastic monologue, so that his character could change clothes off stage… It was this gorgeous monologue that I got to deliver, and I had a great deal of fun with it. It went quite well and ever since, Charles has written lovely monologues for me.”
Then when he wrote “The Divine Sister,” Mr. Busch wrote an old lady part for Ms. Van Dyck, and also gave her another character.
”Then he said, What if you also played the young boy? I said, ‘Sure,’ having no idea how I would do that. It ended up that this little boy, Timmy, I play is one of my favorite (characters). After that, he’s always written boy parts for me.”
Another reason this run of “The Divine Sister” is fun for Ms. Van Dyck is that she’s appearing with her husband, Jonathan Walker (another regular in Mr. Busch’s plays). They met when they were in a production of “Hamlet” at The Old Globe in San Diego.
”When we first met, we did a lot of Shakespeare together and there was a big chunk of time where we didn’t work together at all — not out of choosing, just out of fate and what opportunities presented themselves — and Charles got us together in ‘The Third Story,’” Ms. Van Dyck says. “They cast Jonathan in the role and they were having trouble finding these other parts and apparently someone said, ‘You should see Jonathan’s wife.’”
Working in New Hope also is bringing Ms. Van Dyck close to home. She was born in Scotland, and her family moved to Princeton as she started kindergarten. She’s a Princeton High School graduate, and appeared in plays at area churches, with McCarter’s youth programs, and at the Princeton University campus.
”I did as much theater as I could in the context of school,” she says. She has lived in New York City since 1987, but still visits Princeton, as her mother still lives in the house Ms. Van Dyck grew up in.
”It is definitely still my hometown,” she says.
She’s also familiar with the Bucks County Playhouse. In her senior year in high school, she participated in the theater’s annual student festival.
”I won the only award I’ve ever won for acting — best supporting actress for playing Gwendolen in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’” she says.
When she told Alex Fraser — the Playhouse’s producing director — that she had participated in the student festival , he asked to judge this year’s festival.
”It’s kind of a full circle,” Ms. Van Dyck says. “It was really delightful actually, seeing the theater again, but seeing these kids do their wonderful thing and being on the other side of it.”
It’s not often that an original cast is brought together to do a new production of a play. With this cast and crew enjoying the work and being together, it makes sense to wonder if they could all get together again in another five years.
”At this point,” Ms. Van Dyke says, “we’re having so much fun, it’s like, How could we ever let this go?”
“The Divine Sister” is at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope, Pennsylvania, July 22 through Aug. 13. Tickets cost $39-$74; buckscountyplayhouse.org; 215-862-2121.
Back in the Habit: Expect big laughs when “The Divine Sister” arrives at the Bucks County Playhouse
By Anthony Stoeckert