Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Savannah Disputation

Religion is rarely so much fun as it is in this tennis match of a new comedy, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons. But it’s not just all for sport. Playwright Evan Smith lets each side score some solid theological points in this competition between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  

Walter Bobbie directs a delightful ensemble cast in a story about two Catholic sisters (Dana Ivey and Marylouise Burke) whose lifelong assurance that they belong to “the one true faith” is shaken by Melissa, a fundamentalist Christian (Kellie Overbey) whose mission is to “save” Catholics by getting them to renounce their tradition.

“I’m trying to convert Catholics,” she says.

“Into what?” they want to know.

“Christians,” she says smugly.

Margaret (Burke), the sweet-natured sister, and Mary (Ivey, in photo), her divorced and often irritated sibling, share a house that soon becomes a sparring ground after Margaret politely welcomes in Melissa, a door-to-door “missionary to the Catholics,” over Mary’s strong objection.

“If you’re nice to them, they’ll just keep coming back,” Mary warns. “They’re like cats.”

But Margaret wants to listen. After Melissa explains one element of her tradition, Margaret excitedly pipes up, “We believe that too!” Melissa smiles condescendingly, “No you don’t,” she says.

Because Melissa is determined in her mission, Mary calls in the parish priest, Father Murphy (Reed Birney), for reinforcement. Melissa explains that she doesn’t really have anything against Catholics in general. “Take away their religion and they’re just people,” she says.

“Take away their religion and they’re not Catholics,” Father Murphy replies.

But the tone shifts as the debate gets down to the root of Christianity as both sides seek to pinpoint exactly what the one true faith really is. As they are challenged, they begin to realize they have been spouting beliefs handed down from others without fully questioning the orthodoxy behind them.

John Lee Beatty’s set is heavy on Catholic imagery, which I hope he means as a comic exaggeration. The sisters’ living and dining room feature a crucifix, a cross, statues of Mary and a rosary hanging by the door leading to the kitchen, to name some of the items. Otherwise the set is nice, conveying a cozy, bright middle class home. David C. Woolard’s costumes portray the sisters as middle class and Melissa as lower class, which is in keeping with how the characters are developed in the script. Kenneth Posner’s lighting design makes this world intimate and accessible.

While the play makes fun of stereotypical images of both Roman Catholics and evangelicals, it doesn’t mock either group. In fact, it just might spark some questioning and debate among staunch believers in either way. (Episcopalians like me will probably be glad we’re right in the middle -- catholic but not Roman.)
The Savannah Disputation’s limited engagement runs through Sunday, March 15 at Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater, 416 W. 42nd St., between Ninth and 10th Avenues  Tickets may be purchased online via, by phone at (212) 279-4200 (Noon to 8 p.m. daily), or in person at the box office. 
     Reflecting Playwrights Horizons’ ongoing commitment to making its productions more affordable to younger audiences, the theater company will offer HOTtix, $20 rush tickets, subject to availability, day of performance only, starting one hour before show time to patrons aged 30 and under. Proof of age required. One ticket per person, per purchase. STUDENT RUSH, $15 rush tickets, subject to availability, day of performance only, starting one hour before curtain to full-time graduate and undergraduate students. One ticket per person, per purchase. Valid student ID required.

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