IF YOU GO
“The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens & Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” runs through July 9 at Lantern Theater, 10th and Ludlow streets in Philadelphia. For tickets call 215-829-0395 or go to www.lanterntheater.org
So you’ve worked closely with America’s most famous atheist for two decades and decide to write a play. What would you choose to dramatize?
Well, how about imagining three other equally famous men — a deist, a “Christian anarchist” and a skeptic who leaned strongly towards Unitarianism — who are locked in a room that’s not Hell but is definitely on the Other Side and have them try to figure out why they’re there? Oh, and make the title really long so people will remember it!
After a life-threatening illness, Scott Carter (longtime producer and writer for the acerbic Bill Maher) started working on a play about spirituality and chose these men: Declaration of Independence author and former President Thomas Jefferson, Victorian literary superstar Charles Dickens and the passionate, irascible author of War and Peace Leo Tolstoy. In “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” (hereafter referred to as The Gospel) we are treated to a delightful character study of three extraordinary men thinly disguised as a philosophical debate about faith.
The play begins as the three men are thrust into a white walled room with a door that locks behind them, a table, three chairs and a mirror (the audience) as the fourth wall, a room that could easily be in the same neighborhood as the purgatorial bus stop C.S. Lewis created in his novel The Great Divorce. In Lewis’ book the recently deceased jostle and snarl at each other waiting for a celestial bus to take them to Heaven.
But in this room, where Leo (“Don’t call me Count”) Tolstoy says the free thinkers are trapped “like three Jonahs in a whale’s belly” the disputes are mostly intellectual. Naturally, they don’t like being locked up and want to find a way out – and on. As the three captives exchange their stories it becomes clear they all were drawn to the original teachings of Jesus, to the point where each man developed his own version of the Gospel.
In the table drawer they find blank journals and pens Someone obviously wants them to use. So they get to work creating a new Gospel — and quickly discover that they can’t agree on much of anything.
Jefferson was the rational deist who famously wrote, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg… reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.” He believed in a Supreme Being but not in the Trinity. Dickens was a publicly devout skeptic who often criticized what he saw as religious extremism in Britain. Tolstoy in his later years became an unorthodox Christian who based his beliefs in Christ’s message of nonviolence.
Can the three geniuses work together to get out of their impasse? Remember that they are all writers. Carter ensures it’s great fun to watch them try by having each man reveal contradictions in his spirituality. Jefferson was the defender of rationalism and moral sense who couldn’t give up the six hundred slaves that ran his beloved home Monticello, even after death. Dickens and Tolstoy’s ambivalence about the class system in their countries was reflected in their own shaky marriages.
Gregory Isaac’s cool veneer of self-confidence and unquestioned leadership as Jefferson keeps the more emotional outbursts of Dickens (Brian McCann) and Tolstoy (Andrew Criss) in check (at least for a while). McCann, who was the conniving Roman tribune Menenius in Lantern’s splendid production of Coriolanus this season pushes hard on Carter’s view of Dickens as a clever, conceited self-promoter. He’s the spark of the production and fun to watch but Dickens was surely a more complex character than this preening egomaniac who spends much of his time trying to get a reaction from the tightly wound and self-righteous Tolstoy.
Director James Ljames, ubiquitous on the local theater scene as playwright, director and actor has the latter’s appreciation for giving each character a chance for big and small moments that resonate. Despite the seemingly cramped conditions of this small room packed with so much self-regard, Ljames has choreographed the actors well and they parade around and onto the table and chairs in a small but boisterous ballet of braggadocio and big ideas.