The Savannah Disputation @ Playwrights Horizons, New York

cast list
Reed Birney, Marylouise Burke, Dana Ivey, Kelli Overbey

directed by
Walter Bobbie
Religion is funny.

It’s a tried-and-true fact that’s true all the more so in New York City, a citywide den of iniquity that loves few things more than to congregate in the hearing of a good old-fashioned religious joke – Jew jokes, Christian jokes, they’re all the same (Muslim jokes are still a bit tetchy post-9/11).

In line with this assertion, Evan Smith’s new play The Savannah Disputation, now playing at Playwrights Horizons off-Broadway, seems destined from its off-to-the-races beginning to induce guffaws.

Its zany Georgian characters rattle off Catholic and Baptist jokes a-mile-a-minute; what’s surprising is the level of skill behind it all and the achievement – no small feat – of real, textured characterizations amidst the laughs.

The play, which runs ninety minutes (with an awkward under-five-minute pause between its two parts), is easily digestible, like a sitcom. Thanks to Walter Bobbie’s fast-past direction, it never loses its steam once it’s established its conflict. In the play’s first minutes, sisters Mary (Dana Ivey) and Margaret (Marylouise Burke) are rushing around their cluttered house like chickens with their heads cut off. Soon, there’s a visitor at their front door, a young, attractive evangelical missionary-in-training named Melissa (Kellie Overbey), who simply wants to spread the word of Jesus. Curmudgeonly Mary slams the door in her face, but, later, Margaret invites her inside. After significantly stirring up insecurities regarding Margaret’s staunch Catholicism, Melissa leaves, but not before Mary has cooked up a scheme.

Mary tells Margaret to call the number on the young woman’s pamphlet and invite Melissa over for dinner on Thursday night, when they’ll also be hosting her good friend and leader of their congregation Father Murphy (Reed Birney).

“We want you to crush her” are Mary’s exact words, as she goads Father Murphy into her ruse of a disputation, a drop-down, drag-out philosophical fight that she imagines will leave her Catholic faith wholly vindicated. What ensues is a comic tour de force, punctuated by one-liners and interesting character-revealing moments. One minute, Father Murphy’s showing Melissa the books he’s written; the next Mary’s threatening to return his Vicar of Dibley DVDs, asking for an excommunication and demanding he return her copy of Angela’s Ashes.

The play’s four cast members each give impressive performances. Stage vet Dana Ivey is bitingly ornery as the self-described friendless Mary. As her sister Margaret, Marylouise Burke, has an oblivious sense of almost childlike innocence that suits her character’s curiosity to a T.

As the religious experts du jour, Kellie Overbey is spirited and borderline-ditsy as Melissa, while Reed Birney plays the part of Father Murphy with a levelheaded conviction that keeps the verbal sparring spirited while maintaining an evenness between the Catholic and evangelical sides; he’s a sort of moderator figure.

Each of them has his or her insecurities. Mary’s husband left her early on; Margaret never married at all. Melissa can’t seem to find a suitable suitor other than her pastors, and Father Murphy has his own resentments toward those who question his life of celibacy.

The play itself isn’t perfect. An underdeveloped subplot regarding unanswered voicemail messages from Mary’s doctor distracts rather than adding to the mystique of the play. And the unresolved benign attraction between Mary and Father Murphy – a sort of strange, almost romantic, chemistry – seems somehow less interesting than the religious argument at hand, though it’s obviously meant to ratchet up the tension.

Still, it’s good to see a play that’s not afraid to present a no-holds-barred confrontation, particularly on the subject of religion. Thankfully, Smith refrains from providing easy resolutions for his characters; they’re too complicated for that. Even as they’re lobbing one-liners, it’s from the heart – even if the majority of the hearts of the characters on-stage are broken.

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