'The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord': Theater Review

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord Production Still - H 2014
Michael Lamont

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord Production Still - H 2014

An unabashedly middlebrow entertainment that engages prototypical celebrities in spirited arguments over the true meaning of Christ's teachings  

Three historical heavyweights contentiously collaborate in the afterlife on a recomposed New Testament in this speculative comedy from Bill Maher's longtime writer-producer

Sporting a title so long that the average online reader might not even get through it, Discord reconfigures Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit through the filter of Steve Allen’s Emmy-winning 1977-1981 PBS series Meeting of the Minds. Trapped in a locked, baldly-lit white room, three deceased geniuses articulately thrash out their contending views of Scripture as much out of the entrenched stubbornness of their morally compromised egos as their passionate convictions.

All three had in their lifetimes enthusiastically applied razor and blue pencil to the St. James Version. Patrician agrarian democrat Thomas Jefferson (Larry Cedar) was not only the original author of the Declaration of Independence, which he ruefully declares "eviscerated" by its editors in the Continental Congress. He was also the architect of separation of Church and State, and spent leisure hours in the White House cutting and pasting his own personal rendition of the New Testament. This was informed solely, he believes, by his application of scientific reasoning, purged of all irrationally miraculous elements.

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Flamboyant Charles Dickens (David Melville), by contrast, had purloined the dramatic surprises of Anglican doctrine and with A Christmas Carol, created the trappings of the domestic holiday celebration as we have since known it. Dickens insists that faith is best secured by the most fantastic of calculated entertainments and the surrender of disbelief to dogma.

Most cantankerous of all, Leo Tolstoy (Armin Shimerman), renounced his title, fame and copyrights to become a guru of an essentialized Christianity that rigorously rejected doctrine introduced into the Gospels through priestly rewrites of subsequent centuries. As vigorous a repentant sinner as St. Augustine (or his own Pierre in War and Peace), Tolsoy’s temper remains violent even as he aggressively insists that the essence of Jesus’ teaching is to "resist not evil."

Playwright Scott Carter has been a satirical marathoner, producing the first 1,100 episodes of Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher from its 1993 Comedy Central debut and executive producing Real Time with Bill Maher since it began in 2003 on HBO. That work has earned him 25 Emmy nominations for producing and writing, two consecutive CableAce Awards and a PGA Award.

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Discord comprises roughly 25 blackout segments of varying lengths in a compact 85 minutes, starting out with audience-cueing comedy stylings intended to establish a shared insider comfort with the highfalutin material. Its collegiate-level wiseacre references breeze through the requisite expository background, because Carter is determined to grapple no less earnestly with his concerns of faith, belief and principle than his principals.

In obeisance to the modern mandate of myth debunking, each great man inevitably must be castigated for rank hypocrisy in his personal life, in glaring contrast to his lofty ideals. Champion of liberty Jefferson cops it for his exploitation of slaves for personal gain. Sentimental advocate of family values Dickens is rebuked for his cruel treatment of his aging wife and youthful mistress. Apostle of submissive poverty Tolstoy is exposed for his lack of compassion and recourse to inherited privilege. As an indictment of human frailty, all this seems somewhat self-evident, rather judgmental and colorably unchristian even for an agnostic.

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The conversation wobbles uneasily into a celebrity enactment of an upperclassman bull session. This tends to flatter the audience as much as the great intellects are prone to aggrandize themselves. Nevertheless, while the discourse might not be developed much beyond that of the public lecture hall (or TED talk), Carter is to be commended for sticking, to all appearances, to recognized known facts.

One must also admire how he relishes the rhetoric of disputation, as the arguments advance in breathtaking long sentences that counterpoint opposing views and reach for a synthesis of idea. The verbal colons and semicolons (not a single audible dash!) comprise an innately musical rhythm of colloquy.

With such deft actors barreling through the prolix text, the illusion of substance is greatly heightened. Though their characterizations may be delimited into easily digestible types, the force of personality remains in high dudgeon throughout.

Cedar, who impressed recently in diametrically contrasting roles in his one-man show Orwellian, projects an intrinsically American flavor and ingenuous conviction in the primacy of intellect. Melville, portraying a former actor and prodigious public performer, hides his vulnerabilities effectively behind a bombastic, peacocky front. But pride of show must be accorded Shimerman’s prickly proponent of humility, a dashing, swashbuckling portrayal that transcendently seizes every theatrical opportunity, taking glee from every agony.

This production, which had a successful run earlier this year at the small NoHo Arts Center in the San Fernando Valley, would be newsworthy alone for its move to an institutional theater like the Geffen, apparently in a bid for a New York opening. One can only pray that, contrary to established practice, this exemplary cast might make the move with it. The same goes for the imaginative costumes of Ann Closs-Farley and subtly clever sound design of Cricket S. Myers.

Cast: Larry Cedar, David Melville, Armin Shimerman

Playwright: Scott Carter

Director: Matt August

Set designer: Takeshi Kata

Lighting designer: Luke Moyer

Costume designer: Ann Closs-Farley

Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers

Music: Michael Nyman

Presented by Geffen Playhouse