Fans of Sartre will know this setup: three guys walk into a small room in the afterlife. But unlike No Exit, the characters in The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord are three of the most eminent men of the nineteenth century. I’d tell you who they are, but I think you’ve guessed already.
If the dead can focus at all, it is reasonable to conclude that they will focus on large issues. These three focus on the Christian Bible (and, more specifically, the New Testament), a version of which each has written. The Bible is, in terms of copies purchased, the most popular book in the world (and, unless the legislation is vetoed by Governor Haslem, it will be the State Book of Tennessee.)
But what is it? There are as many varieties of the Bible as there are Christian religions, plus extra Bibles to reflect the views of various philosophers, philosopher-aspirants, and pseudo-philosophers with a following.
Playwright Scott Carter has written his combatants — which is to say, his characters — up large, so that each can reinforce his approach to Scriptures. Thus Jefferson (Brit Herring) is a soothing rationalist, whose seeming Stoicism masks a passionate nature. Dickens (Peter Boyer, who regularly plays Dickens’ Scrooge in MetroStage’s A Broadway Christmas Carol) is a preening popinjay, (he explains the mystery of one God in three persons by comparing it to himself: “I manifested myself as a father, son, husband, author, actor, director, editor, publisher, playwright, magician, Mesmerist, marathon walker” and thus more than a Trinity, an “infinitinity”) whose miracle-stuffed Bible is written for children, which is how he considered his fellow-man. Tolstoy (Steven Carpenter, who once played Count Vronsky in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) is a man of great passion in the service of self-righteousness, which is utterly befitting for a man who confined his Bible to the teachings of Christ and who considered it the only truth.
This somewhat-less-than-holy trinity first sets out to harmonize their versions of the Bible, and, failing that, critique each others’. They try themselves against the principles they claim to hold dear, and find each other…human. You doubtlessly know Jefferson’s sin (it involves the peculiar institution he both denounced and profited from) and it will please you, if you don’t know already, to discover that the other two men have sins as outsized as Jefferson’s.
Carter, who is best known as Bill Maher’s producer, has created an entry in the genre of plays — No Exit is one, as is Lucas Hnath’s The Christians and The Great Divorce, a C.S. Lewis story adapted by Max MacLean and Brian Watkins — where characters debate the most important questions: who are we? why are we here? how are we to live? what happens next?
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THOMAS JEFFERSON, CHARLES DICKENS AND COUNT LEO TOLSTOY: DISCORD
March 31 – May 1
Washington Stage Guild
at Undercroft Theatre
900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington DC 20001
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $40 – $50
Check for Discounts
Carter uses Dickens, who was brilliantly popular but not brilliant, as the fall guy for most of the play, and Boyer takes advantage of every opportunity to be funny. He gives us a man passionately in love with himself, in whom the love is fully requited. In the production I saw, Herring was a little slow with some of his lines early on, but by the time he gets to the monologue in which Jefferson confronts himself over slavery, he is painfully effective.
But the real revelation is Carpenter as Tolstoy. Carpenter, known to current audiences principally as a director, presents a Tolstoy who is dangerous, and dangerously explosive. Carpenter’s Tolstoy is as full of himself as Boyer’s Dickens, but where Boyer carries off his character’s insufferableness with a twinkle in his eye, Carpenter’s Tolstoy is deadly serious. Carpenter makes Tolstoy’s rage and intolerance so palpable that I didn’t realize the irony of the lesson he takes from Scripture — that we should love those who persecute us — until after the play was over.
Discord is full of fireworks but the resolution — if it is the resolution — is sotto voce, and full of ambiguity. It is this way in real life too, I think.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord by Scott Carter . Directed by Bill Largess . Featuring Peter Boyer, Steven Carpenter, and Britt Herring . Scenic design by Molly Hall . Costume design by Kelvin Small . Lighting design by Marianne Meadows . Sound design by Frank DiSalvo, Jr. . Stage manager, Arthur Nordlie . Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.