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A CurtainUp Review
The Savannah Disputation

Disputation (noun) 1. the act of disputing or debating; verbal controversy; discussion or debate. . . 2. an academic exercise consisting of the arguing of a thesis between its maintainer and its opponents. . . 3. Obsolete. conversation.

Why are y'all talking about copies of the bible? This and that copy--why don't you just look at the original Bible?.— Margaret.

The original bible? The manuscript of Matthew written by Matthew? The original of Genesis in Moses's handwriting? Along with a souvenir program signed by Jesus, Babe Ruth and Ty cobb? Those things don't exist. They're all long gone, lost in the mists of time. All we have are copies of copies of copies.— Father Murphy
Savannah disputation
Mary Louise Burke, Reed Birney, Dana Ivey (Photo: Joan Marcus)
We've been following Evan Smith's career for ten years, beginning with his Victorian parlor comedy The Uneasy Chair, also at Playwrights Horizon. The Savannah Disputation proves two things: First, that Dana Ivey, who was also in that first play, is still one of the most fun to watch thespians of a certain age. And second that young Mr. Smith (he started his playwriting career at 17) doesn't repeat himself, except in the sense that he's always willing to take risks— in the case of The Savannah Disputation that risk involves putting on a play that has the feel of a sitcom like the Golden Girls, but digs beneath its sitcom-ish surface for a more serious purpose.

Even though the debate implied in the title does tend to get too much of the upper hand, this 90-minute rumination on faith and the hereafter is remarkably entertaining. How could it not be with Ivey and Mary Louise Burke playing two plain as boiled potatoes Southern Catholic sisters, and Kellie Overbry doing a bang-up take on Melissa, an Evangelical member of a small fundamentalist Christian sect that sends its missionaries ringing doorbells to spread their gospel? As Ivey and Burke nail the curmudgeonly and bossy Mary and the simple minded Margaret, so Overbey convincingly shows that there's more substance to the blonde bombshell evangelical pamphleteer than meets the eye. Reed Birney, a versatile and always interesting actor, rounds out the cast's virtues as Father Murphy, the sisters' parish priest who needs to fortify himself with a few stiff drinks when he discovers that he's expected to pay for his dinner and banana pudding by giving the the evangelical intruder her comeuppance.

Like the Civilians in their latest musical docudrama, This Beautiful City (CU's review), Mr. Smith leaves the opinions to his characters but himself remains as neutral as his name. Father Murphy also tries to stay outside the disputation, but he is less successful than the author.

While Melissa's frequently ringing cell phone and outfit (bravo, costumer David C. Woolard) set the play in present day Savannah, the two style-blind elderly sisters who share a comfortably furnished, roomy house (another bravo for John Lee Beatty's finely detailed set) could be from another era. The rather skimpy plot begins with the pretty and persistent missionary working her way into this staunchly Catholic home. When Mary sees that her sister is taken in by the pert and pushy proselytizer she hatches a plan to have the erudite Father Murphy make short shrift of her talk about Catholics not being true Christians.

The sisters' response to the missionary's arrival on their front porch immediately establishes their personalities. Mary, slams the door in the bell ringer's face with a resounding bang and a warning to call the police if she shows up again. Margaret, though insisting "we're Catholics" is less firm. As she's easily manipulated by her sister, so it doesn't take long for Melissa to make a dent in her beliefs about the after life (Several answering machine messages about some medical test Margaret has had hint at a reason why she may be more than usually anxious and vulnerable). The initial Margaret/Melissa exchange has Melissa shocking Margaret by telling her that if she's "one of the elect" her body will be resurrected and perfect as when she was twenty, which prompts the astounded Margaret to comment "it wasn't perfect when I was twenty."

It's after Father Murphy gives up on his effort not to get involved in the debate that the crafty Mary springs on him (being the intellectual and atypical priest he's afraid he'll convert Melissa rather than have her convert Margaret), that the disputation aspect of the play gathers full steam. While Father Murphy explodes Melissa's fundamentalist arguments, he also confirms much of what she says, thereby causing the volatile Mary to become an instant drop out from the church, tossing the Catholic artifacts all around the living room into a box and demanding to be ex-communicated. In short a theological discussion turns this quiet home into an unruly verbal skirmish. It's all orchestrated at a brisk tempo by director Walter Bobbie.

As Smith takes no sides it's never too clear just what his intentions are, other than to see if he could write a quiet tragi-comedy that derives its action, poignancy and laughs from a parlor pow wow about issues of faith. It's a yes he can, and, given the variety of Smith's work overall, I look forward to what he comes up with next.

Other Evan Smith Plays reviewed at Curtainup
Uneasy Chair (Playwrights Horizon 1998)
Psych (Playwrights Horizon 2001)
Servicemen (The New Group 2001)
The Savannah Disputation
By Evan Smith
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Cast: Dana Ivey (Mary), Reed Birney (Father Murphy), Marylouise Burke (Magaret), Kellie Overbey (Melissa).
Scenic designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Tony Meola
Stage Manager: Robyn Henry
Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission
Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater 416 West 42nd Street (212) 279-4200
From 2/06/09; opening 3/03/09; closing 3/15/09.
Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 2:30 & 8 PM and Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 2nd press performance
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