It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a play featuring three characters known for being writers -- and philosophical ones, at that -- is bound to be talky. As its rather longwinded title indicates, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord can talk the legs off of a Japanese table (FYI, Japanese tables don’t have legs). Scott Carter’s play’s premise is reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, in that in the hereafter the three title characters are eternally confined to quarters with one another. But instead of, as Sartre’s cowardly character Joseph Garcin put it, “hell is other people”, Hades is hearing self-important blowhards hold forth for all eternity.
Or, perhaps heaven, as we’re never entirely sure where our titular trio of chatterboxes wind up. (Albeit for only 85 straight minutes, not, thankfully, perpetuity -- although when they discuss Jesus it does begin to feel like time without end). Fortunately, the three thesps who bring the idealistic scribblers to life are all accomplished actors of stage and screen who often succeed in making Carter’s philosopho-palooza engaging, entertaining, and dare I say, at times enlightening.
David Melville, a Shakespearean actor of English origins, hams it up as his fellow countryman Charles Dickens. In fact, Melville’s scenery chewing and scene stealing kinetic kleptomania may have fans of the author of Oliver Twist shouting: “What the Dickens?” One wonders if Dickens acted so boorishly and buffoonishly, although as perhaps the UK’s first literary celebrity, he might have been as vain as he’s depicted. Melville’s comical performance reminded this spectator of the zany Alan Seus, on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. In any case, Melville’s hammy performance injects a needed note of hilarity into what could otherwise have been a very dull play. Indeed, Ralph Fiennes’ preternaturally boring 2013 The Invisible Woman, which trod some of the same territory as Discord, was the stinkeroo of last year’s AFI filmfest. (Speaking of the afterlife, when this writer dies he’ll ask St. Peter to give him back the three hours he wasted at that screening the fiendish Fiennes was late for, by taking them away from Fiennes and returning the lost time to him in order to enjoy a few more hours on Earth.
This Melvillean take on Dickens is in sharp contrast to Larry Cedar’s Jefferson (who appeared in 1776 -- although not as Jefferson -- and in HBO’s Deadwood series, as well as the one-man show Orwellian). Whereas Melville’s Dickens is daffy, Cedar is dour; Melville is wild, Cedar is wry. As Leo “Don’t Call Me Count!” Tolstoy Armin Shimerman shimmers as an over the top novelist (he portrayed Star Trek, Deep Space Nine’s Quark and appeared on Broadway in Three Penny Opera). Racing around the stage in his peasant getup, fright wig and stagey beard Shimerman seemed to this reviewer more like Rasputin than the author War and Peace, but what does your humble scribe know?
This production helmed by veteran director Matt August makes deft use of stagecraft and special effects to break up the characters’ interminable prattle, trying to figure out why they are thrown together and then pondering the meaning of life. This creative team includes lighting designer Luke Moyer, sound designer Cricket Myers, projection designer Jeffrey Elias Teeter and to a lesser extent scenic designer Takeshita, as the set per se is pretty minimal.
Since 1993, playwright Carter has been Bill Maher’s executive producer, from the comic’s Politically Incorrect days on Comedy Central and then ABC, to HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. Carter tries to replicate Maher’s formula of mixing punditry, patter and pleasantries in Discord, hence Melville’s -- and to a lesser extent Shimerman’s -- comic relief. When the one-acter descends into dissertations on the New Testament it reminded this critic of Kevin Smith’s obscure, doctrinal asides on Catholicism in 1999’s Dogma, and is strictly snoresville for this secular humanist atheist (like Maher!) and non-Christian. Seriously dude, this ain’t a passion play and if this scribe wanted to listen to tedious New Testament dissertations, on Sundays he’d head for the nearest steeple -- where this biblical blather belongs -- not the stage, where it doesn’t (at least, not since the Dark Ages). Religion, like prayer, should be kept out of public schools and theaters.
Recommended for You
But when Jefferson and company muse upon other matters Discord comes alive and is philosophically engaging. In meditating out loud about why the three of them have been thrown together their flaws are discussed. Interestingly, their libidos have gotten the better of them (in terms of the patriarchal monogamy conventions of their eras). When it comes to sex, Tolstoy was a no account Count, Dickens a dickens of an adulterer and Jefferson the worst of all. Indeed, Discord becomes most interesting when the author of The Declaration of Independence’s slave owning is questioned.
When your humble scribe was a little boy his Dad, a Civil Rights activist, took him to Monticello, where they partook of the grand tour of the domicile of Virginia’s Renaissance Man: Inventor/architect/ scholar/writer/philosopher/president/bon vivant, ad nauseam. Touring Monticello, the docent pointed out pre-electric “the great man’s washing machine,” which was hand operated; “the great man’s architectural design for the mansion”; “the great man’s library”; and so on and so forth. But then the tourists were rather casually shown “the great man’s slave quarters”, and your then-innocent reporter was absolutely thunderstruck, and asked the guide what she was talking about, and she repeated that, indeed, those humble abodes were where the great man’s slaves lived.
Well, who the hell do you suppose was operating the great man’s washing machine by hand? It most certainly wasn’t the aristocratic Mssr. Jefferson, whose hands were far too busy scribbling immortal bon mots. (BTW, the great man actually also invented a clever device for making duplicate copies -- so his deathless prose and correspondence would be preserved for posterity, no doubt. Lucky us!)
It was at that precise moment that your reviewer figured out America was a colossal lie, an “empire of glib-erty” (to paraphrase Jefferson the slaveholder), built upon falsehoods and forced labor, that the “shining city on the hill” was more like mendacity of a shill, and so on. People have long scratched their noggins trying to figure out how the man who wrote “all men are created equal… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” could own other human beings -- among them his common law wife and mother of his children, Sally Hemmings.
But the answer is really quite simple: It’s not just that Jefferson was a hypocrite of gargantuan proportions (which, of course, he was). In fact, he was very simply pursuing his own class interests. If pursuing his happiness meant getting rid of an English king or coercing Africans to do all his labor for him so he could drink fine wine, read rarified texts, invent do-hickeys and have sex with his late wife’s darker skinned half-sister, so be it. And you can be damned sure that to secure their rights, Jefferson and his fellow ruling class ilk instituted a Government that did not derive their unjust powers from the consent of the governed -- and enslaved. Thomas Jefferson and those other slave owning Founding Fathers were just pursuing their unalienable rights -- even if it came at the expense of denying hundreds of others their human rights and pursuit of happiness. And while we’re at it, how many Native Americans signed the Louisiana Purchase? So even the “Emperor of Liberty” wears no clothes. (Too bad Carter didn’t write a play featuring Nat Turner, John Brown and Geronimo instead. LOL!)
Be that as it may, theatergoers should not discard Discord. This onstage rambling rumination is at its best when dramatizing and presenting these and related ideological issues. And that is what makes this philosophical theatrical treatise worth watching, along with a grand finale that is a well-staged, rapturous ode to the art of the written (not spoken!) word. So to sum up, and to paraphrase Mssr. Dickens, perhaps ticket buyers can reach accord: Discord is both “the best of times and the worst of times.”
Discord has been extended through Nov. 23 and is being performed Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village, CA 90024. For tickets: (310)208-5454; for more info: www.GeffenPlayhouse.com.