The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy: DISCORD, by Scott Carter. Directed by Byam Stevens. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Michael Sean McGuinness, Rik Walter, Ezra Barnes; photo: provided
"God can do what God bloody well wants!"
There is probably a bar joke that begins, "So Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy come into a bar. . ." but if there isn't such a thing there soon might be. Most of those jokes end up with a punch line that knocks you silly because the silliness in the tall-story is usually based on some outrageous realities. This is what you might expect in a play which puts these three men in a room in limbo, that place between Hell and Heaven where some souls go to wait for decisions on their future. On stage at the Chester Theatre Company's intimate theater in the Pioneer Valley, Scott Carter's comedy "The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy: DISCORD" is bringing you everything the title implies, especially the discordant elements of putting three fine minds into one small space for an eternity.
Although the one-act play lasts only one hour and thirty-eight minutes it begins to feel like an eternity as the socialist aristocrat, the aristocratic son of a miscreant and the socially misrepresented Colonial duke it out over their individual takes on the story of Jesus and its presentation in the King James Bible as well as in their own versions of the same tale. The author of this play is best known for his work producing and writing for Bill Maher's two television series and the dialogue in this play has the same sort of crispness and brittle wit that so distinguished those series. In the case of this play, however, Bill Maher's style of presentation would only work for one character, Charles Dickens. That is the crux of the difficulty with this play.
Thomas Jefferson has a very different tone and Count Leo Tolstoy ("don't call me Count") is certainly a man with a different voice. Carter has given each man his own personal style, but where the author works best is in Dickens. All three have been transported direct from their funerals into this room and their deaths cover more than a century in real time. Their experiences do not resonate with what the others know and their use of language is most definitely different.
The room they are in is undecorated save for one table and three metal chairs. The walls are white and bare except for a two-way mirror on the "Fourth Wall" and the open doorway has a one-way system that prevents anyone from leaving. If there was a servant in this play you could say it was an all-male version of Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit" with intellectual pursuits replacing sensual ones and the same sort of existential makeup controlling everyone's impulses. David Towlun has created this room and his scenic design is perfect for the play.
Each man is easily distinguishable by his look. Costume Designer Charles Schoonmaker has been superbly accurate in clothing the three men in the play. Sound and Lighting by Aaron Allen and Lara Dubin help to maintain that sense of the existential brilliantly. Director Byam Stevens has employed the services of this crew to add accurately eerie sensations to this very talky play.
You would expect "talky" in a play where all three characters are famous authors. Words hold the stage hostage here. There are scenes pre-announced with projections as "pacing" and those are the only scenes where action speaks louder than words. Jefferson, who enters first, says "My current state astounds me" and with that pronouncement he is on the road to discover just what he and the play he is in are all about.
Truth is the key word for what happens in this play. All three men confront the truths about themselves and the images of themselves that they have projected to an unsuspecting public. The stories they are meant to write, it seems, are not their versions of the Jesus myth, but rather the true versions of the Jefferson myth, the Dickens myth and the Tolstoy myth. It is the goal of the playwright to bring these men whose work spoke of honesty and reality to the point of realizing that their work masked the actual realities of their own sad lives.
Ezra Barnes is the brilliant interpretor of Thomas Jefferson. His physicalization of the man is superb as he struts and poses and looks like a five-dollar bill come to life. He has one of the best moments in the play as he breaks down having come to an understanding that his motives may not have been the purest when dealing with his 600 slaves and his mistress Sally Hemings.
Michael Sean McGuinness brings gusto and bravado to Leo Tolstoy along with an immediacy of impending violence. His dark curly hair seems to frizz up before us as he laments his losses and his gains with equal passion. On those rare occasions when he smiles McGuinness gives us glimpses into the playful soul of the reluctant nobleman who wishes to be the man he isn't capable of becoming. It's a perfectly lovely performance.
Charles Dickens is portrayed by Rik Walter who has the most fun of anyone. His Dickens is so self-absorbed, so self-obsessed that he can only assert his superiority over the other two men as an answer to every question, every problem, every theory. Walters' Dickens is so clean he is not only next to God, he is a favorite neighbor of the Deity. Here is a man who has ascended to the level of creature and may yet descend to its opposite if he is given the proper push. Superiority is his only product.
The three men, under Byam Stevens direction, make an unholy trio with a holy mission. They play off one another very well and they keep the audience attention focused on the ensemble rather than on the individual. While the play is definitly flawed - a trim of about ten minutes or so would be appreciated - the production gives it every opportunity to engage and to ensnare its audience.
This isn't a play I'd recommend to everyone. However, if you like a play that keeps you thinking and talking for hours afterward you may have to go a long way to find a more provocative play than this one. We don't often get something as bizarre and attractive as this piece in this production. The run is short, though, so don't spend too much time debating over this; let the characters on stage do that for you.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy: DISCORD plays at the Chester Theatre Company home the Chester Town Hall at 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, MA through July 5. For information and tickets contact the box office at 1-800-595-4TIX or go to their website at www.chestertheatre.org.