Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thank heaven for The Savannah Disputation

Boston's "golden girls," Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum, glitter once again.

When it debuted in New York, Evan Smith's The Savannah Disputation got no respect. Oh sure, it was funny, the critics admitted - but who could take this Christian/Catholic smackdown seriously as thought? Indeed, the play was widely dismissed, as Times reviewer Charles Isherwood put it, as "a Very Special Theological Episode of The Golden Girls."

It was one of those comments that unwittingly crystallize an unconscious (and unearned) snobbery. But now that Smith's divine comedy has become popular across the country, it's slowly being admitted that The Savannah Disputation is about as smart a play as you're likely to see this year (unless Tony Kushner suddenly pulls together The Intelligent Homosexual, etc.). Indeed, the show all but crackles with genuine wit (the kind that leaves Catholic catnip like Nunsense in the dust), and it's quite serious in its intentions - to thoroughly dismantle the premises of both the Protestant and Catholic faiths, while actually charming the members of said churches in the process.

Now you may not believe it, but Smith completely succeeds at this double hat-trick. And luckily for us, Boston's own Golden Girls of the theatre, Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum, are performing said feat brilliantly under the taut direction of Paul Daigneault at SpeakEasy Stage. Indeed, it's easily SpeakEasy's sharpest show so far this year, and sets a heavenly standard for the rest of their season.

True, Smith doesn't quite hold the feet of us secular humanists to the same hellfire he applies to the toes of the Vatican and the Southern Baptist Convention; in the end, he's writing high-end entertainment, not existential tragedy. But he does tighten the screws of mortality on his two heroines, Mary and Margaret, quite deftly. One is bitchy, the other gently ditzy, but they're both church ladies of a certain age who are so devout they have the local priest over for dinner on Thursdays, and even have Vermeer's portrait of the original Christian sisters, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, on the back wall (of course all this doesn't mean they like the Kiss of Peace!). But there's a persistent message on the answering machine begging one of them to "please call us about the results of your test," so we know the Great Hereafter is on their minds - just as the perky Melissa, a "missionary to Catholics" from the United Church of God Church (or something like that), pops up at their door, pamphlets in hand.

Melissa (Carolyn Charpie) seduces Margaret (Paula Plum). All photos by Mark L. Saperstein

At first Mary gives the pert pest the heave-ho ("I know Jesus loves me; it's you he hates!"), but on Melissa's second try, the doubting Margaret allows this sweet, blonde serpent into their claustrophobic little garden. And once she's in, Melissa's litany of "Catholic error" proves so persuasive that Mary has to call in the big guns (in the person of Father Murphy, who does it old-school) to save Margaret's soul in a go-for-broke theological smackdown; as Mary puts it to Murphy, "We want you to crush her."

Jesus Christ, it's a Catholic/Christian battle royale, with Carolyn Charpie, Timothy Crowe, Paula Plum, and Nancy E. Carroll!

But this proves amusingly hard to do as Melissa has almost as many tricks up her sleeve as Father Murphy - although to the audience, it's apparent that over the course of this "disputation" (as in so many before it), each church utterly undermines the other's one foundation. Protestants, of course, rely on the Bible to rebuke the moral, spiritual and sexual sophistries of the Catholic Church - "fundamentalism," irritating as it may be, is really just the basic Protestant principle at its most extreme. Catholicism, meanwhile, remains a monument to Infallible Interpretation, sometimes actually adding to the Bible's precepts (the Trinity, celibacy), but more often embroidering them where they're lacking, or even offensive to common-sense morality (Limbo, Purgatory). Smith, thank God, knows precisely how to target both M.O.'s (he is, after all, a Southern Catholic). Melissa, for instance, is stumped by the fact that even the earliest Biblical texts disagree (and sometimes, amusingly enough, feature crossed-out words); so much for fundamentalism. As for the Catholics - where to begin? By their deeds shall ye know them, as the Good Book says, and dogma, as Melissa points out, has led to torture, anti-Semitism, and child molestation.

Alas, Smith doesn't quite take Margaret and Mary to the final step in their journey - to the sad realization that both literalism and interpretation lead to spiritual dead ends. Nor, for some reason, does he wrap up, or even nod to, his early device of having This Mortal Coil on call waiting; and at times, to keep the debate going, he leans on other devices too heavily (the sudden cell-phone ring, etc.). There's also a diatribe from Father Murphy at the finale that leads one to wonder if some subplot or other wasn't dropped during development.

But who cares when the lines are as good as Smith's are? Not me. The Savannah Disputation isn't just the most intelligent argument I've heard on stage in eons, it also allows all its participants, not just the liberals' darlings, to retain their dignity until the final curtain. (And even Tony Kushner doesn't do that.) What's more, Smith's comedy ultimately derives from character, and so the roles here are meatier than most. Paula Plum is all but unrecognizable as the mousy, uncertain Margaret; somehow she's completely expunged all her usual no-nonsense smarts from her persona, to touching effect. Meanwhile Nancy E. Carroll has gone to town with the brainy, bitter edge that sometimes etches her performances - yet as she prowls Eric Levenson's tchotchke-ridden set, she still hangs onto the Swiss-watch timing that is her trademark, while never losing a sense of proud Mary's essential poignance (for after her many lonely years, much hangs on these end-of-life questions).

I must add that the surprise of Savannah, however, is that newcomer Carolyn Charpie more than holds her own against these two old pros, while unfortunately Trinity Rep stalwart Timothy Crowe can't quite keep up. Crowe (who himself went to seminary) does paint an accurately world-weary portrait of a man for whom the by-ways of faith are well-traveled, but he doesn't really limn the relationship that brings him to Mary and Margaret's every Thursday (or what actually prompts that final tirade). Or perhaps Paul Daigneault's inattention to this detail may count as the one gap in a stretch of direction that is perhaps his best in recent memory. What can't be disputed is that The Savannah Disputation is the most entertaining show in town.

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