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The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord
Geffen Playhouse


David Melville, Armin Shimerman and Larry Cedar
It's almost always instructive to see a production twice. To be fair, I don't do this a lot. Most critics see multiple productions of classic plays over the course of their careers, and if one isn't openly comparing and contrasting in one's review, one certainly is doing so privately. But when a show gets picked up lock, stock and barrel from a lesser known venue and is put up for another run in a more prestigious theatre in the same year, it seems appropriate to compare the differences for those who may have seen the show in its earlier incarnation. Unfortunately, in the case of The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, currently playing at the Geffen Playhouse after its initial run at the NoHo Arts Center, the changes are not for the better.

Upon their deaths, Thomas Jefferson (Larry Cedar), Charles Dickens (David Melville), and Leo Tolstoy (Armin Shimerman) find themselves in a locked empty room together, the only furnishings a table and three chairs. They're all surprised that they're not in Heaven, having been devout men in life, and they begin to wonder why they're stuck here. Gradually they discover that they each wrote their own version of the Bible, and they decide that they've been put here to hash out the final correct version. They soon realize, however, that they have major disagreements, and that they may be stuck in this room quite a while.

Shimerman brings an intriguing combination of reined ferocity and blunt wisdom to Tolstoy, embodying the character's dichotomy brilliantly. Cedar plays Jefferson as a polite but strong-willed gentleman, but the role as written gets less showy moments than the other two and thus is regrettably less memorable. Melville, who was energetic and brilliant in the NoHo Arts Center production, is somehow muted at the Geffen. He's still good, but Dickens has the majority of the laugh lines in the play, and when those jokes don't connect, the play suffers.

Director Matt August does what he can with staging the show, which is limited to an empty room, and he gets strong work from the cast, but Scott Carter's play is ultimately a bit too didactic. On the one hand, Carter has a trio of interesting personages from history to discuss, and he gets a lot of mileage from their interplay. Carter is also witty, and lines such as "If you're good, Lev, I'll tell you who killed Edwin Drood" or "If you want to annoy Christians, quote Christ" sparkle throughout the show. Sadly, he has no conclusion derived from these character's various philosophies, which leads to a literal non-ending that is simply disappointing.

I might have seen an off night at the Geffen (though it was the Saturday night show), but going with what I saw, the production at the NoHo Arts Center was livelier and more effective, even if the play was just as entertaining yet uneven then as it is now.

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord plays at the Geffen Playhouse through November 23, 2014. For tickets and information, see www.geffenplayhouse.com.

The Geffen Playhouse presents The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord by Scott Carter. Directed by Matt August. Scenic Design Takeshi Kata; Lighting Design Luke Moyer; Costume Design Ann Closs-Farley; Production Stage Manager Maggie Swing.

Cast:
Thomas Jefferson : Larry Cedar
Charles Dickens : David Melville
Count Leo Tolstoy : Armin Shimerman


Photo: Michael Lamont

Photo: Craig Schwartz

- Terry Morgan


- Terry Morgan






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