Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy Have it Out at The Geffen

Michael Lamont

'Real Time' producer Scott Carter's new play looks at alternate bibles by literary giants

Scholars may disagree on exactly who wrote the Bible, but most think it is the product of numerous anonymous sources, transcribed, translated and transformed over the centuries, including some sixty English-language versions since King James. One of them is by Thomas Jefferson, but remained hidden in a drawer until after his death on July 4, 1826. Charles Dickens also took a run at the big book, but put a provision in his will that it not be published until after the death of the last of his ten children, which occurred in 1933. Leo Tolstoy turned away from fiction toward spiritual writing in his later years and produced a third bible that had to be smuggled out of Czarist Russia.

Scott Carter, the producer of Real Time With Bill Maher and before that, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, never wrote a bible. But he did write a play about it. In fact, by his own count he wrote it some 200 times, pumping out draft after draft since the idea first hit him following a near-death asthma attack in 1986. The result is The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord at the Geffen Playhouse through Nov. 23.

 “It’s three alpha males who are used to dominating every room that they’re in and they’re not used to being contradicted,” Carter explains to The Hollywood Reporter. “The play puts them all in a limbo setting where each of the three thinks that his path to salvation depends on convincing the other two that his version of Jesus is right and the other two are wrong.”

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But before you decide this is some boring evening of intellectual bloviating, be aware that Carter’s day job at Real Time is all about using humor to humanize larger than life characters. “You’re watching three people who are fish out of water and you’re watching people having to share space they wouldn’t necessarily be sharing space with, fighting for their souls.”

One of the things he learned prepping thousands of celebrity guests over the years is that most have an outlook on the world that correlates directing with their own life experience. He found the same true while researching the literary triumvirate at the center of his play. Dickens was born of humble origins, which is reflected in his more conventional interpretation of the bible, whereas Tolstoy and Jefferson were born of privilege and could afford radical views on subjects ranging from politics to religion.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy latched onto the phrase, “Resist not evil,” as a plea for passive resistance. “The last letter that Tolstoy wrote was to Mahatma Gandhi who developed the concept of passive resistance into a political practice that liberated India and that was an inspiration to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement.”

A former stand-up comic who used to write for porno magazines back in the Boogie Nights years, Carter is a strange choice to pen a play like Gospel. A near death asthma attack became the subject of his first play, Heavy Breathing, but it also marked a turning point for Carter who experienced a sense of urgency about answering life’s bigger questions. “My goal with the play is that the audience gets a little bit of that same sense of urgency,” he hopes.

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It opened for a 7-week run last January at the NoHo Arts Center starring Larry Cedar (Deadwood) as Jefferson, David Melville (Ironclad) as Dickens, and Armin Shimerman (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as Tolstoy, directed by Matt August. When the Geffen suddenly found a hole in their schedule, the company was invited to bring the play there.

“We’re all aware of how very unusual and precious this is that we’re getting to do two full productions of the same play in the same city in the same calendar year,” laughs Carter. “It was magical to see it again on a little bit bigger stage, a little bit bigger budget. People are laughing in some parts. We hope it’s thought provoking in other parts. And we hope that it’s touching on a human level by the end.”