Monday, March 9, 2009

Catholic Laughs

The Savannah Disputation

Written by Evan Smith
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Starring Reed Birney, Marylouise Burke, Dana Ivey, Kellie Overbey

Performances February 6-March 15, 2009

Playwrights Horizons

416 West 42nd Street

Burke and Ivey in
The Savannah Disputation (photo: Joan Marcus)
In Evan Smith’s innocuous comedy The Savannah Disputation, Dana Ivey and Marylouise Burke are delicious as Southern Catholic spinster sisters whose divergent reactions to a door-to-door missionary’s (Kellie Overbey) pronouncements about the Bible and everlasting life trigger a lot of literal soul-searching.

When dowdy Margaret lets young, buxom blonde Melissa into their home to discuss why Catholicism is wrong, hardheaded Mary plans to turn the tables on their antagonist in the form of friendly Father Murphy (Reed Birney), which sets the stage for fireworks of a sort. The quartet’s summit meeting is filled with religious jokes and biblical quotations, as playwright Smith displays a talent for snappy dialogue and an ability to allow his characters to seem knowledgeable about their subject without making it appear that their smarts have been shoehorned into them by their creator (something Lisa Loomer unhappily fails at in Distracted).

At 90 minutes, The Savannah Disputation hums along smoothly thanks to Walter Bobbie’s zesty direction and the cast of four’s top-notch comic chops. Ivey and Burke have done variations of these characters so often that they seem part of their onstage personalities, but that’s certainly not a criticism—indeed, Burke has rarely been so sublimely daffy, and Ivey gets a lot of mileage out of a long-winded monologue where Mary decides that Catholicism is no longer for her. Both actresses take Smith’s easily-digestible dialogue and make it sound far funnier in performance than it reads on the page.

As Father Murphy, Birney underplays so perfectly that his priest comes across as a real person, not a mere caricature. The same also goes for Overbey, whose lower-class drawl and borderline-trashy outfits belie her true survival mechanism. Taken together, the cast allows Smith’s superficial but amusing comedy to walk on water.

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