The new play at Lantern Theater Company is smart, funny, fascinating and entertaining. At times, though, it’s also rude, frustrating, predictable, and morally troubling. But then again, all those words apply to the subjects of the play as well. The full title of Scott Carter’s play is The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord.
When the three title characters meet in the play’s opening minutes, it seems at first as if this will be a cute, Meeting of Minds-style curiosity, uniting three great thinkers whose lifespans overlapped but who never actually met. There will be some vigorous debates, right? Well, yes – but Carter, a longtime writer and Executive Producer for HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, has more on his mind than that.
As Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy stumble one by one into a mysterious room – Lance Kniskern’s clever set design bridges time periods by blending handsome classical frills with modern, utilitarian elements like an exit sign and an in-wall loudspeaker – they all strike imposing figures. Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy soon figure out they’re in the afterlife. But why have they ended up in this room? What do they have in common that has led them here?
The connection that Carter has found is an intriguing one: each man wrote his own version of the Gospels, either for public or personal enlightenment. Each had his own version – and vision – of Jesus’ life. Dickens’ adaptation simplified the Gospel story and stressed Christ’s divinity; Jefferson rejected that divinity, filtering Jesus’ story through a Rationalist philosophy; and Tolstoy emphasized some parts of Jesus’ teaching while rejecting others. Carter depicts these three brilliant but obstinate men trying to combine their Gospels into one narrative, and that’s when the sparks fly.
Carter sketches the three personalities clearly, which propels the conflict, and he’s also clearly studied each man’s work carefully. He also gives each of them rhetorical styles that match their writing styles: Jefferson speaks in flowery tones, Dickens makes puns that reference his best-known works, and Tolstoy speaks bluntly and is prone to violent outbursts.
The result is an interesting intellectual exercise. But once the arguments begin in earnest, a little goes a long way. We know these three will never convince each other, so seeing them argue in circles becomes tiresome. And a section toward the end in which the men acknowledge their weaknesses quickly becomes predictable: when Dickens recounts his own adultery, we know it won’t be long before Jefferson will try, in vain, to justify being a slaveholder.
Furthermore, while the play ostensibly gives each of the three men and their beliefs roughly equal time, in fact Carter stacks the deck against Dickens and his traditional Christianity. Jefferson and Tolstoy, who pride themselves on logic, ridicule Dickens for the devoutness of his beliefs (which are based on faith more than logic). As Jefferson challenges the virgin birth and “insane propositions such as the Trinity,” Dickens gets more and more frustrated, and his response to their taunting makes him look more and more buffoonish. Carter’s play is proudly irreverent, but the irreverence turns into outright hostility at times; Tolstoy’s aggressive anti-religious views may be hard for some theatergoers to take.
Still, there’s a lot of sly wit in Carter’s play, and James Ijames’ snappy direction gives the three actors ample opportunity to play off each other. Gregory Isaac is a refined and reserved Jefferson; Brian McCann is a jolly, gleefully pompous Dickens; and Andrew Criss is fierce and daunting as Tolstoy. (All use convincing accents.) Millie Hiibel’s costumes – luxurious for Jefferson and Dickens, plain and convincing for Tolstoy – add authenticity. And Shon Causer’s lighting – flat white and clinical for long stretches, but turning to shadows and blackouts at key moments, setting off the scenes effectively – adds to the sense of disorientation that the three characters feel.
The Lantern is an old hand at presenting plays full of heady ideas – David Ives’ fine historical drama about the Jewish philosopher Spinosa, New Jerusalem, enjoyed two hit runs at the Lantern a few years ago. Carter’s play covers similar ground, but with more originality and comic panache. It will give you a lot to think about – and, in its best moments, a lot to laugh about.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord plays through July 2, 2017 at Lantern Theater Company, performing at St. Stephen’s Theater – 10th & Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 829-0395, or purchase them online.