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The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord

My first bill in the Virginia legislature to restrict slavery lost by one vote. My critique of slavery in the Declaration was cut by Congress. As president, I curtailed the slave trade three weeks before your Britain did. — Jefferson —
discord trio
l-r: Thom Sesma, Michael Laurence and Duane Boutté (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
Now here's a parlor game: Can you name a play with a longer title than the above? At the moment I can only think of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade by Peter Weiss. For practical purposes, I will refer to this diverting discourse by Scott Cartersimply as Discord. In it, historical figures Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Lev Nikkolavevich Tolstoy are seen as inmates in Hell. They are confined together in one small room where they are consigned to talk and talk and talk at each other, to each other and with each other. We soon learn the reason for this intimate conclave: each is known to have adapted his own version of the Gospels.

Hardly hellish, the virtually sterile room (designed by Wilson Chin) in which they have been placed has only one metal table and two metal chairs. The paneled ceiling has recessed lighting. That's cool for Hell. There is a door that will not re-open once entered. There is no exit (with no apology to Sartre).

Discord is, when pared downed to its existential essence, nothing more than the title implies. And who but Carter, is better adept at giving a platform to three intellectual firebrands than the man who produces the weekly HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher?

The fun of this 90-minute play is in seeing how a smugly condescending America's founding father Jefferson (Michael Laurence) takes umbrage at British author Dickens's (Duane Boutté) displays of priggish indignation, while both are constantly being berated for their posturing by the ferocious and implacable Russian novelist Tolstoy (Thom Sesma). These opinionated men are obliged to get on each others' nerves with prescribed regularity and with zingers such as Tolstoy's "As I told my dear friend, Anton Chekhov as I kissed him good-bye on his deathbed, I hate Shakespeare's plays but yours are worse'."

Per the title, their discourse brings discord particularly in debating the variably arguable facts surrounding the birth and life of Jesus as historically ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

There are laughs aplenty amidst the often stimulating haranguing, especially during the first half. Each man is dressed in era-appropriate garb by designer David Hyman. A bible, a notepad and a modern pen appear quite by magic within the table's one drawer. The pen without a quill awes Jefferson who wonders why he didn't think of that himself. Combining their literary skills to write a collaborative bible seems like a good idea. A good idea except. . .
Jefferson would exclude all that is mystical and fanciful here as in his tome The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.

Dickens would insist on embellishing their version with traditional story-telling elements as he did for his children in his last published work The Life of Our Lord (1849).

Tolstoy is intent on eschewing history as in his The Gospel in Brief written in 1883. Notwithstanding the hubris in their characters' individualized conceits, the actors, under the attentive direction of Kimberly Senior, are altogether convincing in depicting the mannerisms of the social class and culture to which they have emerged.
Boutté does some scene-chewing showing us what "rage" looks like as the self-righteous Dickens, and Sesma embodies an amusingly cliché revolutionary. Most provocative is the way Laurence embodies what we recognize today, and perhaps since the American Revolution, as an unwavering perception of American exceptionalism.

The most highly charged and emotional segments of Discord deal with the contradictions in these men's lives and lifestyles that often decry their moral and ethical convictions. This is particularly well dramatized by an impassioned Jefferson's defense of owning slaves and his relationship with one of his slaves.

Projected titles by Caite Hevner are effectively used to denote progressive chapters. This also applies the original music and notable sound as designed by Lindsay Jones.

What is most illuminating before the play gets just a tad too dense and less purposefully epigrammatic is how these men with profound ideas have ultimately few more convincing insights into the truth of revelation than do the people to whom the bible had been entrusted. Whether you view what ultimately happens as a revelation or a resolution, you won't be able to deny that a visit with three such egotistical souls has much to offer —even to an atheist.

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he Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord by Scott Carter
Directed by Kimberly Senior

Cast: Michael Laurence (Thomas Jefferson), Duane Boutté (Charles Dickens), Thom Sesma (Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy)
Scenic Design: Wilson Chin
Costume Design: David Hyman
Lighting Design: Jen Schriever
Original Music & Sound Design: Lindsay Jones
Projection Design: Caite Hevner
Production Stage Manager: Kristi Hess
Running Time: 90 minutes no intermission
Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street<
Performances: Wed - Sat 8 pm; Sun. 3 pm
From 09/19/17 Opened 10/01/17 Ends 10/22/17
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/28/17

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