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Playwright Scott Carter seems altogether too intent on displaying his intellectual bona fides in his comedy depicting a meeting between three historical titans in the afterlife. He has packed The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord (and that’s the last time you’ll be hearing the full title from me) with copious biographical information and intellectual discussion, much of it revolving around the Bible. So there’s no shortage of cerebral fodder. Unfortunately, however, Carter has forgotten to infuse his windy discourse with sufficient drama. As a result, it mostly feels like a clever thesis written by an ambitious graduate student. The 2014 play is now receiving its NYC premiere after having previously been seen in regional theaters around the country.
That the characters are trapped in hell, or at least limbo, is made immediately apparent by Wilson Chin’s deliberately ugly set, consisting of an antiseptic room outfitted with only a metal table and chairs. One by one, the three men inhabit the room, each one failing to heed the admonition projected on the back wall: “Don’t close the door!”
Each of the historical figures, depicted in the relative prime of his life, quickly introduces himself, leaving Jefferson (Michael Laurence) at a bit of a disadvantage since he died long before the other two achieved literary fame.
The playwright’s extensive comedy background — he’s a longtime writer and executive producer on both Real Time With Bill Maher and its predecessor, Politically Incorrect — is on ample display during the first part of the play, composed of many short scenes punctuated by blackouts. Jefferson boasts about having owned 8,000 books and admits, “I suffered from chronic bibliomania.” Tolstoy (Thom Sesma) tells Dickens (Duane Boutte), “I saw you perform your Carol in London,” to which the pompous, self-regarding Brit author replies, “Then your life was not without meaning.”
The play sustains interest during the first half, which does, to be fair, at least contain one dramatic incident, when an enraged Tolstoy stabs Dickens to death. But this being a celestial plane, Dickens promptly comes back to life and claims it to be a miracle.
“Scarcely a miracle, not killing a dead man,” Jefferson drily observes.
The three estimable figures desperately try to figure out why they have been sequestered together. After realizing that that each had written his own version of the Bible, they guess that the purpose is for them to collaborate on yet another one. This leads to seemingly endless debate: Jefferson is intent on removing any references to miracles — “The Virgin Birth belongs not in the Bible but in Mother Goose,” he huffs — while Dickens wants to exploit the gospel’s inherent drama and Tolstoy highlights its moral teachings.
A little of this goes a long way, and as these windy philosophical diatribes go on and on, you can feel the energy being sucked out of the theater. The play recovers somewhat in the final section when the three characters come to grips with their own moral failings. Jefferson comes off the worst, but after all, he did own nearly 700 slaves.
Despite more than a few examples in which the dialogue truly stimulates, Discord sags under its own intellectual weight, with the direction of Kimberly Senior (Disgraced) failing to give it much stylish oomph. The performances, too, are problematic. Although Laurence and Sesma underplay nicely as Jefferson and Tolstoy, Boutee’s Dickens comes across more like a caricature, the character’s arch brittleness exaggerated to tiresome effect.
You’re likely to feel smarter by the time the evening reaches its conclusion. But you’ll also find yourself grateful for a nice study break.
Venue: Cherry Lane Theatre, New York
Cast: Duane Boutte, Michael Laurence, Thom Sesma
Director: Kimberly Senior
Set designer: Wilson Chin
Costume designer: David Hyman
Lighting designer: Lindsay Jones
Projection designer: Caite Hevner
Presented by: Primary Stages
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