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The Savannah Disputation

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kellie Overbey, Dana Ivey, Reed Birney, and Marylouise Burke
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Can a play be simultaneously too deep and too shallow? That's the question that springs to mind over and over again during The Savannah Disputation, the new Playwrights Horizons production by Evan Smith that's an engrossing, thought-provoking, and thoroughly flimsy new religious comedy. Believe it or not, both those words apply.

Smith has scripted a remarkably well-considered look at faith and faithfulness as exemplified by the ragtag collection of some warring factions that constitute the distribution of dogma in the United States. The old and the young. The studied and the ignorant. The generic and the specific. Everyone is held up to scorching scrutiny and found wanting - especially those who claim to be the purest, surest arbiters of their beliefs. And though Smith makes considerable light of their disagreements, he never belittles, mocks, or bullet-trains through those beliefs as if he couldn't care less. It really is as if he wants to present and even (gasp!) encourage a dialogue.

So when a door-to-door pamphlet-pusher named Melissa (Kellie Overbey) from the Church of the Apostolic Discipline, American Rite, assaults aging Catholic sisters Mary (Dana Ivey) and Margaret (Marylouise Burke), comedy results, but with a vinegary edge. Mary slams the door on Melissa. Margaret listens patiently, but accepts Melissa's literature and invites her back. On that return visit, Melissa terrifies Margaret by convincing her she's on the fast track to Hell. Luckily, Mary is close friends with her parish's priest, Father Murphy (Reed Birney), and is perfectly happy to trick him into setting Melissa straight on the doctrine she can so readily recite and refute.

The rhetorical roundelays between the various adherents of this or that - and those who don't know what they believe - may not be of intense interest to everyone. But Smith smashes through the one-dimensional arguments on every side with such precise force that you'll be hard-pressed not to come away from the play with a better understanding (or at least appreciation) of the contentiousness behind these colliding points of view. By painting all four as very different figures - Father Murphy the authority, Melissa the rebel, Mary the blindly devotional, and Margaret the malleable - Smith grants himself every opportunity to explore the self-serving or self-denying ways with which everyone approaches matters of the spirit.

The performances are just as enliveningly diverse. Ivey is all braying and brash as a woman who doesn't know whether she's been living a life her whole life, but also becomes touchingly brittle when she believes she learns for sure. Burke is, as usual, riotously almost-dotty, but even more crystal-clear than usual as a woman who wants to think for herself but is never given the proper tools. Overbey is bewitching as Melissa, letting the fire-breathing firebrand be the comforting sister you'd want to invite over for tea. Birney is marvelously mellow as Father Murphy, finding every nuance in the only person onstage unwilling to be defined by others.

But for all the play's liveliness and colorful repartee, the tone is so waveringly imprecise that you sometimes wonder if you've stumbled into a live episode of Mama's Family. Mary's girlish glee with every thrust that destroys Melissa's arguments, Margaret's running from the room in tears (twice!) at the prospect of an eternity on fire, one iron-willed believer compelled to renounce, the booming pronouncements from the One True Prophet in the waning minutes that force everything else into rigid perspective... These are all unsettlingly formulaic pieces of a puzzle of play that otherwise delights in bending genre.

Some of this is undoubtedly due to director Walter Bobbie, who's more accomplished at trapping and taming a laugh than he is developing bigger ideas over multiple scenes. Bobbie brings a nice brightness to the action, which solidifies and satisfies more readily as the pace increases. But a slightly less sunny (if not less funny) treatment might provide a richer backdrop for the afterlife-or-death questions with which everyone grapples, and make the unconvincing unraveling of the last final minutes an extension of the play's difficult-to-answer themes rather than just a way of tying everything up neatly before next week's episode.

Most of this is built into the play, however, and would thus not be easily harnessed by any director. It's as if Smith has no end of things he wants to say about these very divisive topics, but is afraid to go full-bore for fear of overshooting or alienating his audience. But the common-sense construction and thoughtful arguing of The Savannah Disputation seem strong enough to withstand any direct blows of acrimony. Like most of its characters, it knows what it is and what it wants to say, but is still searching for the most appropriate voice to translate its often heavenly words into the most easily assimilable form down here on Earth.

The Savannah Disputation
Through March 15
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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