Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy walk in to a—does that sound like a setup? Actually, this story which calls to mind that old "characters walk into a bar" joke is much funnier—and substantive—than any of those jokes even dreamed of being.
It's Scott Carter's play The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, and Arizona Theatre Company is offering it as its grand finale of a pretty damn good season.
In Carter's cleverly conceived and well-presented play, these three historical figures find themselves sharing not only the same place, but the same time, although, of course, they lived in different centuries. That same place is a blindingly bright white and sparsely furnished room. In that room transpires a tense, terse and tireless exploration of, what else? The Bible and, more accurately, the New Testament.
Carter is a smart guy. He is Tucson born and bred and was one of the original founders of the Invisible Theatre 45 years ago. At that time, the small but feisty experimental theater was dedicated to the development and production of original plays, and Carter contributed his fair share to the collective.
He left town to answer New York City's siren call, wanting to make his mark in the big city. When he arrived, it was the more literal sirens he really heard. It was a tough city and an even tougher nut to crack as a writer, but he continued to write, did standup comedy and eventually met up with left-leaning comedian Bill Maher, who hired him to write and produce Politically Incorrect, a gig which lasted ten years. When HBO approached Maher about doing another show, he sought out Carter, and Maher hired him to be the producer of Real Time with Bill Maher.
He still had a thing for the theater, though, and Gospel is a more than respectable contribution. It's also his first to lure theaters to produce it in a big-time way.
It's easy to see why. Gospel is funny, smart and seductively entertaining. ATC's production delivers the compact piece in a breathlessly charming way.
At first, as these men make their appearance one by one, we get the feeling that this might be Carter's take on Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit, his play which gathers people for eternity in a single room, more than a little suggesting that hell is other people, but Carter has something different in mind.
The first to find themselves in this odd and empty room is Mr. Jefferson (Larry Cedar). He is propelled most discourteously into the space through a single door that latches and locks behind him. Confused and curious about where he is—and why—he reasons that he must be in some sort of holding room in which persons that have passed on are interviewed before embarking into heaven.
Moments after Jefferson is ushered in, the door opens and another man is delivered emphatically to the room. This is Charles Dickens (Mark Gagliardi), who, of course, is aware of who Thomas Jefferson was, but to Jefferson is totally unfamiliar. Finally, a third man is flung gracelessly into the room, and that would be Mr. Tolstoy (Armin Shimerman).
Each confronts their lots in their disparate but characteristic ways, but the question remains: Why have they been placed in this room together with no way out?
The reason, which is gradually revealed through a bit of ghostly stage magic, is that each of them had, in their way, revised the New Testament. So begins a discussion of the life of Jesus, the nature of God, miracles and morals—and a lively discussion it is. Then, by another bit of stage magic, there appears to be a directive to synthesize their ideas, discordant as they might be, into a new gospel.
It is a fact that each of these men of passion and words did in their lifetimes try to make sense of a theology that had the cultural consensus of truth, but was often confusing and contradictory to how they understood the world to work, by doing a bit revision. In Carter's notes in the program, he tells of how Jefferson actually cut out, with a razor, various portions of the New Testament and pasted them together is a way he thought much more agreeable. Dickens, too, had chosen chunks he felt most important, reciting them ceaselessly to his children. Tolstoy, as a result of severe depression, began a spiritual quest that resulted in his own narrative.
Can these three hotshots get the job done? Not exactly. What they do share is a confrontation with themselves. Each takes a look in the mirror, and what they see is how they had failed to live according to the truth as they interpreted and espoused it. Maybe hell is not other people. Maybe hell is an unflinching and unavoidable gaze in the mirror.
Now, this is some pretty heady stuff, but make no mistake: Carter's piece isn't a stuffy intellectual discussion disguised as a play or, even worse, Carter's own Sermon on the Mount. It's a delightful piece that develops in short scenes, and (thanks to fine writing, wonderfully wrought characterizations and a skillful director) the show comes at us at a full gallop. It's a cocktail mixed with just the right proportions of fancy and thoughtfulness that goes down easily and makes us a bit giddy.