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Lantern Theater's production of playwright Scott Carter's The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord asks a provocative question: if Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy met in purgatory, what would happen?
As the Emmy-winning executive producer and writer of Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher and Real Time with Bill Maher, Carter knows how to get laughs. In the first act, he grabs the audience by its funny bone as Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy attempt, with witty one-liners and pratfalls, to figure out why they’ve been left together in a room.
Director James Ijames cleverly avoids the claustrophobia that can occur with a small stage, devoid of set changes or intermission. He achieves this by keeping the actors constantly moving in a fast-paced physical and verbal dance. Set designer Lance Knishkern provides an architecturally pristine backdrop that could very well have taken its cues from Jefferson’s Monticello.
Costume designer Millie Hiibel defines the characters through their attire. Gregory Isaac’s Jefferson sweeps onstage in a floor-length, rose-colored satin coat, with elegance and a touch of vanity. His subtle Virginia accent and reserved manner mark him as a gentleman and scholar. Which sets up the perfect foil for Charles Dickens, a flamboyant 19th-century dandy in a swallowtail coat, striped trousers, frilly stuffed shirt, floppy bow tie, and waistcoat.
Played by Brian McCann with comedic theatricality, Dickens’s pretentiousness contrasts sharply with Count Leo Tolstoy’s drab peasant garb. Actor Andrew Criss embodies Tolstoy with an aristocratic Russian accent; his Tolstoy initially mistakes Dickens for “a clown.” Upon discovering that he is addressing the creator of Little Nell, Tolstoy drops to his knees and pronounces Dickens the “greatest living writer in the world.”
Three men and a Bible
Living? That’s open to debate as the three great men attempt to solve the riddle. If they are dead, where is Saint Peter? Why are they locked in a room? And how can they escape?
Unfortunately, I asked myself the same question at the three-quarter mark when this slapstick comedy of manners turned into a serious debate on the teachings of Jesus Christ. In a YouTube talkback filmed earlier this year, the playwright revealed that he developed an interest in religion following a near-death experience more than 20 years ago. “There has to be a God,” he said.
In his search for a belief system, Carter discovered Thomas Jefferson wrote his own version of the Bible, which poses Jesus as a moral philosopher tossing “miracles” into the Potomac. This became the basis for Carter’s play. Along the way, he later found Bibles written by Dickens and Tolstoy, each imbued with their own predilections. Dickens couldn’t get enough of angels, heavenly trumpets, and storytelling; Tolstoy gave his Bible story a political spin.
I had no problem with the play’s basic premise: every one of us, famous or not, is free to create God in our own image. (Mine bears a strong resemblance to George Clooney.) However, when a comedy takes on the mask of tragedy, it has to be done with finesse and purpose. I felt jarred by the playwright’s decision to have each of the characters face a fourth-wall “mirror” and confess his significant sins.
It strikes me as ironic that Scott, who worked so closely with Bill Maher, America’s favorite late-night atheist, looks to the Bible as a moral compass. Given the current blurring of church and state, I would hope he might look to a higher source — say, the Constitution.
For Mark Cofta's review, click here.
What, When, Where
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. By Scott Carter, James Ijames directed. Through July 9, 2017, at the Lantern Theater Company, St. Stephen's Theater, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia. (215) 829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.
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