There’s something about a play depicting a battle between Catholics and evangelical Christians that makes one want to speak Yiddish. “The Savannah Disputation” is a comedy about a Catholic alter cocker and her nebbishy sister, and how a meshuggeneh fundamentalist questions their faith and causes them tsuris. It’s got some good shtick — “The Golden Girls” meets Bible study — but without sufficient character or plot development, it ultimately adds up to dramatic bupkis.
Despite its setting in Georgia as opposed to Florida, the show really does feel like the 1980s sitcom. Mary (Linda Kimbrough), the dominant of the two sisters, is all blunt crankiness, opening the play with a genuinely entertaining monologue about her exchange of insults with a nun at her church who likes to recruit bums. (“I just smiled and said the meanest thing I could think of — ‘I forgive you.'”) Kimbrough does a terrific job with this, but even a fully spirited performance doesn’t banish perpetual thoughts of Bea Arthur.
As her meek, slightly dim, but super-sweet sister Margaret, Marilynn Bogetich fills the Betty White niche, but really bears a greater resemblance to Georgia Engel (Georgette on “Mary Tyler Moore Show”). Writer Evan Smith sets her up as the heart of the play, the one avoiding some potentially troubling test results in from her doctor. It may be pure courtesy that causes Margaret to let in the pert and pretty evangelical missionary Melissa (Suzanne Lang), but it’s her quiet spiritual crisis that draws her in.
In a nicely calibrated performance from Lang, Melissa remains polite as she lobs doctrinal grenades, always assuring the sisters she has no intention of offending them when she calls the Pope the Antichrist.
Her arguments upset Margaret and infuriate Mary, who calls for reinforcements from Father Murphy (an oh-so-dry Robert Scogin). Invited to dinner with no knowledge of what he’s getting himself into, Mary gives him his charge: “We want you to crush her!”
It’s all quite diverting for a while, watching the priest try to avoid the confrontation as Melissa charges forth. Smith throws in some detailed debate involving translations from Aramaic and Greek, but like Father Murphy, the playwright seems reluctant to engage too deeply with the theological argument. Even when the “disputation” gets going (which requires a couple of glasses of Scotch for the priest), it’s easy to crave distraction.
The main problem is that Smith just doesn’t develop any real story to distract us. Despite a clean and committed production directed by Michael Halberstam, and performances that are all one can ask for, the play remains fairly shapeless.
The scant personal revelations that emerge are mild at best: Melissa has man trouble; Margaret’s real concern turns out not to be her own eternal fate, but her sister’s; Mary, shock of shocks, has a thing for her priest, and even questions her devotion to the Church when contemplating the potential ickiness of bodily resurrection.
When characters freeze pretty early in two dimensions, the potential for eternal damnation doesn’t seem high enough stakes to make all this dramatically compelling, leaving us with just a few good zingers and reminders of a long-cancelled sitcom.