David Melville (Dickens), Larry Cedar (Jefferson), and Armin Shimerman (Tolstoy) in The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord at the Geffen Playhouse.
David Melville (Dickens), Larry Cedar (Jefferson), and Armin Shimerman (Tolstoy) in The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Michael Lamont)

Political writer Scott Carter (executive producer of Real Time With Bill Maher) weaves the factual lives of three world icons — Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy, all of whom composed a gospel of Jesus' teachings — into a fantasy discussion about religion and the failure of our tutors to consistently practice what they preach. First presented with director Matt August at the NoHo Arts Center in early 2014, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord thrives at the Geffen Playhouse, particularly when enacted by the original cast members: Armin Shimerman (Tolstoy), Larry Cedar (Jefferson), and David Melville (Dickens).

In a purgatory that resembles a bureaucratic office space, the great writers of the colonial United States, Victorian England, and Tsarist Mother Russia argue the merits of their interpretation of Christ's teachings. All three had written or rewritten their own versions of the Bible, and each was a man whose pious image hid a hypocrisy that went against their professed love of Christianity. Now locked together in a room that prevents them from entering the afterlife, these three obstinate men must collaborate in order to figure out how to get out.

Carter's play is insightful and full of challenging concepts. All three characters are fully realized, distinguished by their clashing personalities. Cedar brings regal Southern charm to Jefferson. His character has the advantage of not knowing his two celebrity partners' work since he died before they came to prominence, so Cedar is able to treat both like men with foibles without taking into account their historic stature. You can see on Cedar's face his growing understanding of these literary geniuses. As the overbearing, narcissistic Dickens, Melville gets most of the play's comedy. He is delightfully bombastic, reminding the others over and over of all his talents, believing his own press. Shimerman presents Tolstoy as a representative for repressed workers. His pauper clothing and Bolshevik stance shield Tolstoy's noble background, one he denounced but never fully relinquished.

In many scenes Carter's vibrant ideas come to life. Discord is a literate work that will delight historians and theatergoers. Students learning about these great men in school will appreciate how the play journeys past the facts they read about in class into an existential realm. Despite such lofty ambitions, the tone is light and humorous. There are some moments that drag, and some of the humor can sink to sitcom level that undermines the characters' intelligence.

August's direction of the three actors allows the ideas to bounce around instead of becoming dull divinity lectures. Despite the limited location, he uses music (sound design by Cricket Myers) and lighting effects (by Luke Moyer) to expand the staging. Some of the superimposed chapters (projections by Jeffrey Elias Teeter) are a bit too cutesy.

By using three historically famous individuals as metaphors, Discord indicts religion itself for proselytizing spirituality while permitting its leaders to ignore or manipulate its teachings while indulging in greed, self-indulgence, and pride. Audiences will recognize this lip service from modern governments and religious leaders on their Facebook and Twitter feeds on a daily basis.