Los Angeles Theater Review: THE SAVANNAH DISPUTATION (The Colony Theatre in Burbank)

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by Tony Frankel on June 19, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

A MISSIONARY’S POSITION

At rise: A critic is writing when the doorbell rings. The critic opens the door and reveals Savannah, a perky, Southern, cheerleader-type with pamphlets in her hand.

Critic: Yes?

Savannah: Hey, y’all! I’m here to spread the news about The Savannah Disputation at the Colony Theatre. It’s kind of like a cross between Golden Girls and Doubt – well, not really Doubt, but there is a serious diatribe about the differences between religions. So, it’s all packaged like a sitcom (90 minutes, no intermission…naturally), but it covers a very serious subject.

Critic: Is it ironical? Does this play poke fun at the bombardment of new plays that resemble television?

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of The Savannah Disputation at the ColonySavannah: Aw, heck, no. I think all that stuff about backstory, intellectualism, plot development, subtext and social substance is way overrated. This play raises some intriguing questions about the origins of one’s faith and Biblical interpretation, but the script is filled with enough one-liners to keep the premise from being challenging. Would you like a ticket?

(Critic slams door in her face. Hold for laughter. Doorbell rings again, and the Critic opens the door a crack.)

Savannah: Now, hang on there, Mr. Grumpy. I think I can convert you. You may think that you’re seeking nourishing universal truths and satire and all that stuff, but this is a thoughtful work that’s kinda disguised as a sitcom. What’s wrong with some genuinely good laughs and a good religious discourse?

Critic: (Dejectedly) Nothing, I suppose.

Savannah: Right you are! Goodness, you want all that heady stuff. Well, someone’s always doing The Crucible somewhere, right? I’ve got this pamphlet here called “Sitcom For the Soul” that might interest you.

Critic: No, thanks. (He goes to shut the door.)

Savannah: The play stars Anne Gee Byrd!

Critic: I’m listening…

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of The Savannah Disputation at the ColonySavannah: Right? One of L.A.’s finest actresses. She plays Mary, a crotchety woman who lives with her meek sister Margaret. You can tell by their names that they’re Catholic. Well, when a sprightly Fundamentalist named Melissa brings her missionary zeal to this Savannah home, Margaret has doubts raised about her Catholicism. Mary is furious and convinces Margaret to invite Melissa back on Thursday, because that’s the day that the parish priest Father Murphy shows up for his weekly dinner. Sabotage, right? Well, the playwright Evan Smith sure knows all things Biblical, because each side gets to show a crack in the other one’s beliefs. The one-upmanship is pretty engrossing, especially for those familiar with a religious upbringing.

Critic: Why is Margaret suddenly doubting her faith?

Savannah: Oh! There’s this doctor’s office that keeps leaving messages about some test results, so Margaret is probably rethinking the end-of-days.

Critic: Well, I do love Anne Gee Byrd.

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of The Savannah Disputation at the ColonySavannah: Well, heavens, all of the acting is fantastic. Ms. Byrd really gets to sink her teeth into her role as the cranky Mary. It’s the meatiest part in the show, ya know, not so one-note as the others. Bonnie Bailey-Reed is so perfect as Margaret, her submissive sister who is disposed to apostasy, that you have to do a double-take to swear she’s not acting. And Rebecca Mozo is the essence of sweet vulnerability as the Pentecostal evangelical Melissa. Josh Clark shows great restraint as Father Murphy, but when he lets go, the fur really flies. Director Cameron Watson established the characters with all sorts of nuance and shading! In fact, if it wasn’t for the amazing acting…(she stops).

Critic: …then what?

Savannah: Oh, nothing, nothing. What were you saying?

Critic: I wasn’t.

Savannah: Oh, right, Stephen Gifford’s set is amazing! The painstaking details of a typical Savannah home are evident right down to the Spanish moss that hangs over the roof. But, to be honest, the play doesn’t feel like Savannah, and the dialects are much more subtle than the Savannah drawl you may be familiar with. In fact, now that I think of it, this play could have taken place anywhere you would find Christians and Catholics. But, gosh, the zingers are awesome. When Melissa’s cell phone goes off, the ringtone is the theme to Mission: Impossible. Mission! Get it? Isn’t that hilarious?

Critic: It sounds like there’s potential for depth, but the playwright couldn’t deliver.

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of The Savannah Disputation at the ColonySavannah: Can I be honest with you? Even though the play does wear out its welcome – I mean, there’s no big revelation or anything – I promise that you won’t be bored. Take off that cap of discernment, mister, and go have some fun! (She pauses.) OK, maybe this play has nothing more to offer other than the pleasure of its company, but what are you going to do until theater has some kind of renaissance? See nothing?

Critic: OK, I’ll check it out. Thanks for stopping by. Oh, wait! What happens with the doctor’s office? Is someone going to die?

Savannah: Um, I don’t know. But look here, you silly man, not everything gets resolved in theater, just like life. Maybe there’s more to The Savannah Disputation than you think. Why else would so many regional theaters with a subscription audience be offering this play in their season? Take these other pamphlets and be at peace: “Deus ex machina: A Lost Art,” “What Would Jesus Write?” and “Theater in the 21st Century: The Greatest Stories Never Told.”

(She tenderly takes his hand.)

Savannah: Cheer up, wouldja? The Savannah Disputation may just put you in a sunny disposition. Join us, won’t you? How about a little armistice for the arts?

(And she’s off. The Critic closes the door and stares at the “Sitcom For the Soul” pamphlet with a mixture of resignation and forlornness as the lights fade to black.)

photos by Michael Lamont

The Savannah Disputation
The Colony Theatre in Burbank (Los Angeles Theater)
scheduled to end on July 8
for tickets, call (818) 558-7000 x15 or visit http://www.colonytheatre.org/

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Alan Mandell July 8, 2012 at 11:57 am

Your review is much funnier and more profound than the play.
It’s a great win for atheism.!

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