Review by Kathleen Campion
Three guys walk into the afterlife. Not just any guys; we’re talking Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy. Each is thrust into god’s waiting room, in the order of his demise. Each is presented in the prime of his life. Each establishes his bona fides as a leading man of his day. Then, they set about considering just why each is in the room with the others.
The discussion centers on the Christian Bible and each of these writers has standing in the discussion. Jefferson, devoted to science and the ideals of the Enlightenment, went so far as to write his own version, cutting and pasting with razor and glue. He retained the sections of the New Testament that described the philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth — but excised the miraculous and the Divine.
Tolstoy took a reductionist view as well. After converting to an ascetic morality he trimmed up much of the Russian Orthodox Bible to a simple “turn-the-other-cheek” version — five commandments, not ten.
The story teller in Dickens drove his rewrite. He wrote a short book retelling the New Testament tales of water-to-wine and blind men seeing, to indoctrinate his children into the faith. He storyboarded his bible.
Not surprisingly, these gentlemen could not agree and, sorry to report, the discussion becomes tedious. It is not banter, though there is laughter. It is not incisive, but not quite obvious either. It is honest, in that each confronts himself, filling in the human flaws that dull the finish on his statue. It’s a confessional — each of these paragons is a fraud.
At the light end of the premise, the playwright, Scott Carter, is serving up a staged version of the conversational gambit: If you could have dinner with the three greatest writers in history, whom would you choose? At the weightier end, you are forced to consider: How do you feel about the conversation by the time the port is served? Enlightened? Bilious?
I was excited to see what Scott Carter, writer and EP of Real Time With Bill Maher and an accomplished hand in all kinds of comedy, would do with a play of ideas. There are solid laugh lines (Dickens: “mankind is our bus-EE-ness”) and there are clever turns of phrase: (Tolstoy: “remove the spring from a watch and be astonished it does not tick.”). The staging is pointedly stark — the afterworld rendered in metallic furniture and prosaic etched glass panels, so the drama better be rich. It’s not thin soup so much as well short of cassoulet.
The actors inhabiting the great men have precious little breathing space. The dialogue is dense with reference and the pace is fierce. Duane Boutte’s Dickens is winning and funny, quick to offense, a dandy, flush with pretension. Michael Laurence plays his Jefferson with patrician condescension that seems just right. Thom Sesma invests his Tolstoy with gritty authenticity. Seated near the back of the cosy Cherry Lane I could smell his feet, or at least his boots, when he removed them.
Ultimately, DISCORD delivers some clever patter, some heavy lifting for the actors, and some weighty recapitulation of Jeffersons’s realism, Tolstoy’s asceticism, and Dickens’ personification of character. But when it comes to wrapping it up — the meaning of life, what’s it all about Alfie? Crickets.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: DISCORD — By Scott Carter; directed by Kimberly Senior.
WITH: Duane Boutté (Dickens), Michael Laurence (Jefferson), and Thom Sesma (Tolstoy).
Designed by Wilson Chin; costumes by David Hyman; lighting by Jen Schriever; original music and sound by Lindsay Jones. Presented by Primary Stages, Cherry Lane Theatre at the Cherry Lane, 38 Commerce Street, Greenwich Village through October 22. Running time 1 hr and 25 minutes.