Review: ‘The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord’ at Washington Stage Guild

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In the beginning was the Word–In the beginning was Reason–In the beginning was the Spirit. In the beginning was…

Brit Herring as Thomas Jefferson, Peter Boyer as Charles Dickens and Steven Carpenter as Count Leo Tolstoy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Brit Herring (Thomas Jefferson), Peter Boyer (Charles Dickens), and Steven Carpenter (Count Leo Tolstoy). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy (he renounced his “Count” status) wrote their own versions of the Bible, with particular emphasis on the New Testament. Like those who have compiled bibles before them, they chose the books and passages they wanted God to affirm.

Scott Carter’s The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, now playing at the Washington Stage Guild, dramatizes that fact: the play may be a little short on humanity, but it is theologically, philosophically, and historically rich indeed, and it’s sure to spark interesting discussions afterwards, for believers of all kinds.

Directed by Bill Largess, who gives the production a crisp pacing, Discord takes its premise right from Sartre’s No Exit: the three famous white men have died and now walk into a room, from which they cannot escape.

Unlike Sartre’s diabolically dysfunctional lovers’ triangle, however, Carter has a dysfunctional writers’ triangle (or should I say trinity as that is one more thing the three theologians disagree on?).

Locked in their “beige” room the three dead white men decide that the only thing that can free them is their mutual agreement upon a core Christian Bible. Hence, the struggle begins and, thus, the struggle will end in “discord”.

Jefferson, Dickens, and Tolstoy are played by Brit Herring, Peter Boyer, and Steven Carpenter. Each gives their famous character a distinct demeanor, style of speaking, and way of relating to others.

Herring’s Jefferson is all statesman with a dab of the sour; Boyer’s Dickens trades heavily on the fact that Dickens was an actor and, thus, is quite verbose; Carpenter’s Tolstoy has all the cynicism of a man who finds the world too grim to bear.

The interaction of the three men is lively, entertaining, and occasionally funny as they spar over everything from the meaning of life to who was more famous. Tolstoy also has a fierce critique of William Shakespeare and his King Lear that totally riles his two English-speaking rivals.

Brit Herring as Thomas Jefferson, Peter Boyer as Charles Dickens and Steven Carpenter as Count Leo Tolstoy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography .

Brit Herring (Thomas Jefferson), Peter Boyer (Charles Dickens), and Steven Carpenter (Count Leo Tolstoy). Photo by C. Stanley Photography .

You should not, however, expect some deep “existential” revelation about their fate. The script just doesn’t go there, even when the three men begin to face some of the more unpleasant, hypocritical facts about their moral perspectives, particularly when viewed in relationship to their less than moral lives.

The design team, led by Set Designer Molly Hall, creates the perfect environment for a play about words and their meaning. Lights by Marianne Meadows only highlight the “beige.”

Costumes by Kelvin Small appropriately place each of the men historically and culturally. Sound design by Frank DiSalvo, Jr. adds some fascinating zip to the production.

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord is not one of those dramas that explores

All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins

but it is sure to pique your curiosity about humankind, particularly successful white male writers and their strange obsession with God: his nature, his laws, and his most holy cosmos.

Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission.

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The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord plays through February 21, 2016 at the Washington Stage Guild performing at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information and for tickets, call (240) 582-0050, or purchase them online.

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