Sitcom premise turns preachy in Outfit’s ‘Disputation’


“The Savannah Disputation”

Grade: C+

Through Sept. 7. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $20-$35. Theatrical Outfit (the Balzer Theater at Herren's), 84 Luckie St., Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849,

Bottom line: Theater as a glorified Bible-study class.

In a certain sense, Theatrical Outfit artistic director Tom Key has been operating ahead of the curve for some time now — and more power to him for that. The string of profitable “faith-based” movies coming out of Hollywood lately is a fairly recent phenomenon, but Key has taken a like-minded approach to his programming for years.

His traditional opening-night curtain speech wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the company’s dedication to telling stories that “stir the soul,” which most Outfit productions generally do. More to the point, however, it seems that one slot each season is devoted to a show with specifically religious overtones.

From among wholesome Bible-inspired musicals like “Godspell” and Key’s own “Cotton Patch Gospel,” to more serious plays like “Tent Meeting” (about an old-time small-town revival) or “My Name Is Asher Lev” (about a spiritually conflicted Jewish artist), arguably the best of these faith-based projects to date is 2011’s scintillating “Freud’s Last Session,” which imagined a psychological and theological debate between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis.

Another of Key’s favorite opening-night quips maintains that all of the Outfit’s season subscribers go to heaven. (To be sure, his highly personable style never gets tired, eliciting a hearty laugh from the audience every time.)

Never mind, apparently, what one of the superficial Southern stereotypes in “The Savannah Disputation” remarks to the others about “good deeds” and “indulgences,” about the futility of trying to buy one’s way into heaven – or out of hell. She’s a perky evangelical missionary who forces herself (and her fundamentalist beliefs) on a pair of spinster sisters and practicing Catholics, one a cantankerous curmudgeon and the other a flighty free spirit.

It’s one thing that none of the three women possesses the intellectual capacity of a Freud or a Lewis. Problematically, too, unlike the characters in many of the Outfit’s other faith-based exercises, they’re devoid of enough emotional depth or dimension to truly engage us in their soul-searching situation, regardless of whatever our own religious convictions happen to be.

Thus far, compared to “Freud’s Last Session,” et al., Evan Smith’s rather pedestrian comedy is probably the least persuasive and most blatantly sermonizing of these specialized Outfit shows. Notwithstanding the eventual appearance of the sisters’ sensible parish priest, that the characters can’t be taken very seriously consequently minimizes a lot of their spiritual discussions.

The tone of the piece plays out like an extension of the sitcom “Mama’s Family,” as if produced by the Trinity Broadcasting Network. By the end of Smith’s 90-minute one-act, everybody’s simply sitting around quoting Scriptures from their Bibles, citing contradictory interpretations of the same events and even splitting hairs about some grammatical inconsistencies.

Although director Tess Malis Kincaid, who staged Georgia Ensemble’s splendid “The Great Gatsby” earlier this year, is relatively powerless to transcend Smith’s much-lesser material, at least she casts the show well: Mark Kincaid (her husband) plays the priest; Shannon Eubanks and Alex Bond are the respectively sweet and sour sisters; and Lane Carlock portrays the aggressive evangelist.

There may not be any one “right” religion, but “The Savannah Disputation” states its obvious case in a mostly wrongheaded way.