Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Savannah Disputation


By Evan Smith. Directed by Walter Bobbie. At Playwrights Horizons. (CLOSED)

It's not often that a play gets regularly compared to a sitcom while remaining well-regarded by reviewers, but Evan Smith's comedic religious debate The Savannah Disputation somehow manages to do it. This is one of those weird cases where reviewers who disliked the play (Patrick Lee and Marilyn Stasio) and those who enjoyed it agree on what the play is but disagree in their responses to it. Everyone loves the performances, particularly stage legend Dana Ivey. The big outlier is Linda Winer's dismissive take in Newsday. Off-Off Online says "For Christians of any denomination, The Savannah Disputation serves as a smart parable about the necessity of examining one’s faith," leaving this unbelieving writer to wonder "what does the play have to offer the 22% of Americans who aren't Christian?"

NYTheatre A
(Martin Denton) Delightful, smart ... Ivey's performance borders on tour-de-force, which should not surprise her fans one bit. Burke actually anchors the piece, adding depth to her trademark ditz characterization; we really do understand that Margaret has been put in peril by Melissa's un-asked-for intrusion into her spiritual life. Birney is terrific as Father Murphy, in a very human and richly layered performance. Overbey more than holds her own as the troubled yet unwaveringly dogged Melissa. Walter Bobbie is at the helm, and he's given his actors full reign to make the most of Smith's creations. Likewise, he's brought together a design team that delivers what feels like a near-perfect world for this play.

Lighting and Sound America A
(David Barbour) Evan Smith is an unusually crafty playwright: In a miraculous act of transformation, he blends learned theological discussions with a priceless supply of zingers, spinning out a religious farce that says plenty about the cultural dislocations of this so-called Christian nation of ours.

NY Daily News A-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The new comedy at Playwrights Horizons did something all too rare nowadays; it made me laugh my head off and think at the same time... If the play stumbles, it’s because the author hasn’t come up with a satisfying conclusion. But this production is constant-ly entertaining as staged by Walter Bobbie (“Chicago”), who has assembled a sterling cast. Birney shows the pastor as a man of quiet reason and, when ambushed, fiery anger. Overbey’s carefully gauged work makes her character human and persuasive, not hateful and stupid — even if Melissa calls yoga “satanic.” Burke brings touching vulnerability to the meek Margaret. And as the wholly meanspirited Mary, Ivey’s wrysoaked performance is divinely inspired.

Backstage A-
(Gwen Orel) Curmudgeons are entertaining. Curmudgeons who are elderly Southern women rant as smoothly as cold sweet tea. And when they rant about religion, they are funny as all get-out. Dana Ivey, playing Southern curmudgeon Mary in The Savannah Disputation, Evan Smith's pitch-perfect new play at Playwrights Horizons, is the answer to an atheist's prayers.

American Theater Web A-
(Andy Propst) Thoughtful and frequently hilarious ... It's a merry ninety minutes that's terrifically orchestrated by director Walter Bobbie. Smith's zingers – which can make the show sometimes sound like a sitcom – fly from the performers with pitch-perfect timing. Concurrently, as the play ebbs and flows from comedy to theological debate and human drama, it proves both thought-provoking and moving[.]

Off-Off Online B+
(Edward Karam) Does all this sound heavy and depressing? It isn’t. Smith has invested it with plenty of comedy, and director Walter Bobbie has cast two supremely accomplished actresses to play the sisters

NY Post B+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Considering The Savannah Disputation deals with religion in a Southern setting, director Walter Bobbie ("Chicago") successfully avoids cheap effects - no pronounced accents played for superior Yankee smirks here. But, as with all comedies, everything hinges on the cast. Fortunately, this quartet is positively heavenly. Birney, probably relieved at being in a light-minded production after the harrowing "Bug" and "Blasted," is a straight man with a spine, and Overbey manages to make her spiritual salesgirl a lot less ditzy - and obnoxious - than she could have been.

Hartford Courant B
(Malcolm Johnson) The Savannah Disputation takes its religious stands seriously, but it is often humorous. It takes a familiar subject — the efforts of Pentecostal to win converts — and puts a comic spin on the encounters. The production draws its strengths from the quartet of performances. But the engine driving the play is Ivey, who long ago excelled at Playwrights Horizons as an older Georgian in "Driving Miss Daisy." But it's Ivey and Burke who run off with the show.

Time Out NY B
(Helen Shaw) Smith blends two great traditions: the snappish Southern woman giving everybody what for and a faith-versus-faith showdown with dueling quotations from the good book. Since the former is Ivey and the latter is delivered in part by the great Reed Birney, playing a priest Mary sics on Melissa, the play delivers a great deal of pleasure. But though director Walter Bobbie keeps dialogue like, “Are you saved?” “I guess I’ll find out!” whizzing along, the piece still sags. Issues of doubt, celibacy and mortality whirl about the talented foursome, and yet we frequently feel the playwright trying to keep them talking.

Nobody plays ''cranky'' better than Dana Ivey. And Marylouise Burke can turn ''dither'' into an art form. Together, these actresses offer compelling arguments for your attendance at The Savannah Disputation, Evan Smith's mild comedy about the theological clash between two Catholic ladies of a certain age and an eager young evangelical on the proselytizing trail.

NYTimes B
(Charles Isherwood) A lot of The Savannah Disputation, which is directed with plenty of fizz by Walter Bobbie, consists of comparative-religion-class debates over the word of the Bible and the tenets of the Catholic faith, set to the rat-a-tat rhythm of a sitcom laugh track. It sometimes feels like a Very Special Theological Episode of “The Golden Girls,” with the adorably daffy Ms. Burke cast in the Betty White role, and Ms. Ivey as a stand-in for Bea Arthur. Fortunately, Ms. Burke and Ms. Ivey are actresses of integrity and ingenuity, infusing these sometimes cartoonish characters with doubt and conflicted feeling. Ms. Burke is hilarious in her embarrassment when Mary goes on the attack; she flees the room with the alacrity of a frightened hare.

CurtainUp B
(Elyse Sommer) 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.

TalkinBroadway B-
(Matthew Murray) 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.

Variety C
(Marilyn Stasio) [The play] feels like a young relative's valentine to beloved elderly aunts. But the scribe underestimates the intelligence of the old girls, winningly played by Dana Ivey and Marylouise Burke in Walter Bobbie's sleek production for Playwrights Horizons. While Smith doesn't shy away from touchy religious topics, he cuts off the soul-searching just when it begins to get challenging, delivering believe-it-or-else marching orders and covering up his retreat with vapid character backstories.

TheaterMania C-
(Patrick Lee) The characters In Evan Smith's The Savannah Disputation, now at Playwrights Horizons, eventually challenge each other's deeply held faiths, but the results aren't more than sitcom-deep... While the play's set-up may breeze by under Walter Bobbie's direction, it slows to a crawl once the sisters invite both their parish priest Father Murphy (Reed Birney) and the missionary to dinner and a faith-based showdown gets underway.

Newsday F+
(Linda Winer) The cast is the only reason to see The Savannah Disputation, Evan Smith's tedious liturgical-lesson comedy about religious bickering among biddies and true-believers in a Louisiana town.

NYTH A 13; LSA A 13; NYDN A- 12; ATW A- 12; OOO B+ 11; NYP B+ 11; HC B 10; AP B 10; NYT B 10; CU B 10; TONY B 10; TB B- 9; V C 7; TM C- 6; ND F+ 2. TOTAL = 146 / 15 = 9.73 (B)

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