It should come as no surprise that a play featuring three characters known for being writers — and philosophical ones, at that — is bound to be talky. As its longwinded title indicates, Scott Carter’s 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). The 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. (Though when they get onto the subject of Jesus it does begin to feel like time without end.) Fortunately, the three actors 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 at times enlightening.
David Melville, a Shakespearean actor of English origins, hams it up as his fellow countryman. In fact, Melville’s scenery-chewing and scene-stealing kinetic kleptomania may have some in the audience asking, “What the Dickens?” One wonders if the renowned author 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 me of the zany Alan Sues, 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.
Whereas Melville’s Dickens is daffy, Larry Cedar’s Jefferson 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. Racing around the stage in his peasant getup, fright wig and stagey beard, Shimerman looked more like Rasputin than the author of War and Peace, but what do I 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 itself 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 it descends into dissertations on the New Testament, I was reminded of Kevin Smith’s obscure, doctrinal asides on Catholicism in 1999’s Dogma, strictly snoresville for this secular humanist atheist (like Maher). Religion, like prayer, should be kept out of public schools. And theaters?
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, the Russian was a no-account Count, the Brit a dickens of an adulterer, and the American the worst of all. Indeed, Discord becomes most interesting when the slave owning by the author of the Declaration of Independence is questioned.
When I was little, my dad, a civil rights activist, took me to Monticello, where we partook of the grand tour of the domicile of Virginia’s Renaissance Man, inventor-architect-scholar-writer-philosopher-president-bon vivant. The docent pointed out the pre-electric “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. But then we were casually shown “the great man’s slave quarters.” Your then-innocent reporter was absolutely thunderstruck, and asked the guide what she was talking about, so she repeated that, indeed, those humble abodes were where the “great man’s” slaves lived.
Well, who do you suppose was operating the great man’s washing machine by hand? Most certainly not the aristocratic Mssr. Jefferson, whose hands were far too busy scribbling immortal bon mots — btw, the great man also invented a clever device for making duplicate copies, so his prose and correspondence would be preserved for posterity. Lucky us!
It was at that precise moment that I figured out America was a colossal lie, an “empire of glib-erty” (to paraphrase Jefferson the slaveholder), built upon falsehoods and forced labor. 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 Hemings.
But the answer is really quite simple: It’s not just that Jefferson was a hypocrite of gargantuan proportions. In the context of his era, he was very simply pursuing his own class interests. If pursuing his happiness meant getting rid of an English king and 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. You can be damned sure that to secure their rights, Jefferson and the fellow ilk of his class instituted a government that did not derive their unjust powers from the consent of the governed — and enslaved. Thomas Jefferson and the other slave-owning Founding Fathers were just pursuing their unalienable rights, even if at the expense of denying millions 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. (Maybe one day someone will write a play featuring Nat Turner, John Brown, and Geronimo.)
Still and all, 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, paraphrasing 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 pm; Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm; and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles 90024. For tickets: (310) 208-5454; for more info: www.GeffenPlayhouse.com.
Photo: Geffen Playhouse