Dana Ivey, Reed Birney, and MaryLouise Burke
in The Savannah Disputation
(© Joan Marcus)
Dana Ivey, Reed Birney, and MaryLouise Burke
in The Savannah Disputation
(© Joan Marcus)
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.

In fact, the show plays at first exactly like a sitcom pilot about two Catholic spinster sisters (Dana Ivey and Marylouise Burke) who share a house in Savannah. They get into a tangle with Melissa, a young Evangelical missionary (Kellie Overbey) whose passion is to inspire Catholics to renounce the Church. In the play's opening scene the more wary sister, Mary (Ivey), has a snappy retort for the missionary when slamming the door in her face: "I know Jesus loves me," she says, "it's you he hates!" Soon after, her somewhat dim sister Margaret (Burke) instead has the missionary into the house where more funny business ensues. You can almost hear the cue for the laugh track when Melissa reveals that she recently gave up meditation, because it turns out yoga positions are actually Satanic!

Nonetheless, the show is initially enjoyable and promising, partly thanks to the well-tuned comic delivery by Ivey and Burke. The two give performances that would fit right in on The Golden Girls -- just broad enough to remain grounded while spinning each of their lines for heightened comic effect. Overbey more than holds her own against these accomplished actresses, avoiding any trace of condescension toward her character.

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. Most of the debate is focused on specific Bible passages, sometimes with a special focus on one single word and its context. Does the King James edition reflect what Jesus meant? Was the meaning of a passage clarified, or obscured, when translated by the Greeks from the original Aramaic? Although entire belief systems rise and fall on the answers to these questions in the real world, they have very little dramatic consequence in the world of this play.

Meanwhile, as Father Murphy and Melissa go back and forth with open Bibles, the spinster sisters are mostly relegated to the sidelines dramatically, reacting with surprise to this or that clarification of Biblical text. A couple of weak attempts to add moments of personal drama -- such as some strain in Mary's friendship with Father Murphy -- ring false. And in the end, if either sister is having a genuine crisis of faith, the playwright hasn't made it known.