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stage dive

Theater Review: What Do Charles Busch and Linda Lovelace Have in Common?

Busch's The Divine Sister.

Transgression nostalgia, anyone? Below 14th Street, two icons of the sexual revolution — Deep Throat and Charles Busch — are reliving their glory days. For Busch, the once and future queen of downtown, it's a drag-draped, gag-packed return to form with The Divine Sister, his comic compendium of all nun clichés: The Sound of Music, Agnes of God, and The Song of Bernadette are just a few of the references he's dug out of his bottomless Hollywood reliquary. It's classic Busch, kitsch-collagist Busch, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom Busch, and longtime accomplice Julie Halston is, of course, right by his side, as a butch sister who's always ready to commit a mugging at the mistress's behest.

Busch himself plays a Pittsburgh-based Mother Superior who ... has ... doubts! ("Doubts!" Busch repeats for emphasis, cinching his face into a Cherry Jones pucker. This happens at least three times, and it's funny at least three times. So, right there, a small miracle.) Orphans, healings, an albino monk, and the world's Waspiest Jewish mother all figure into the proudly nonsensical plot — a Da Vinci Code–ish albino monk turns up periodically, just to prove that Busch wrote this thing after 2003. Most gloriously, the wonderful Alison Fraser is back onstage, this time as a malevolent German nun who talks like Strangelove, plots like Gargamel, and smooches like Ilsa the Wicked Warden. Also (important note!), you can drink in the theater. More of this, please, Eighties Revival Gods, and fewer American Apparel leg warmers. Oh, and capping the evening? Jonathan Walker's extended dong-alogue, where he describes his own enormous manhood, in minute detail, to a horrified Halston. ’Tis a blazon of Jonsonian scale, for a johnson of (allegedly) Shakespearean dimensions.

Walker's penis speech has one rival, across town at The Deep Throat Sex Scandal, delivered by the redoubtable character actor Frank Blocker. Blocker's part isn't so big, but then [insert size-isn't-everything joke here] [then insert "insert" joke here]. The best that can be said about Scandal itself is that it's just as fine a play as Deep Throat was a film. That's only fitting, perhaps. The show was ginned up by an actual part-time pornographer (Jerry Douglas) and a haunted-house impresario (David Bertolino), and it exhibits all the worst and a few of the best characteristics of both those proud forms: abundant chintz, plenty of semi-relevant nudity, goofy prurience half-robed in "artistic" credibility, and the distinct odor of cheap cologne infusing everything. But, unlike Busch and his troupe, the play isn't really in control of its own bad taste: It's a badly lit hotel-room orgy with a cold crudité plate, a lot of unironic mustaches, and an unshakable creep-show vibe. Plain old pacing and dramaturgy don't get much attention, either: There's a little over an hour's worth of actual material here, pumped up to two full acts. And how, exactly, does one manage to write a play about Deep Throat, yet somehow ignore the come-to-Jesus later life of its semi-tragic star, Linda Lovelace? (Lori Gardner is fearless in the role, but the script gives her precious little to do beyond doffing her togs and looking platter-eyed and victimized.) The story instead revolves around the persecuted male star, Harry Reems (a waka-waka Malcolm Madera), who's simply not that fascinating a character, historically or dramatically. (For the definitive text, try the superb documentary Inside Deep Throat, which is instantly Netflix-able and which, unlike Off Broadway, can include actual explicit sex.)

But let's get to the meat: Frank Blocker, playing Nixon-appointed anti-Throat prosecutor Larry Parrish, delivers what I believe could be, hands down, the most vivid, ornate and precise description of oral sex ever uttered on an American stage. It's part of his character's closing argument, the final nail in Reems's coffin. (He's being accused of obscenity, and Parrish — via Block — fashions, in words, something far more obscene than the mere visual image of someone's penis in someone else's mouth.) The drawling southern reactionary is hardly a fresh trope, but Blocker turns this particular moment into a triumph. It's the finest comic monologue I've seen in some time, and that's [insert "happy ending" joke here].

The Deep Throat Sex Scandal, 45 Bleecker Theater, through December 19.

The Divine Sister, Theater for a New City, 155 First Avenue; through January 2.

Photo: David Rodgers