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

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 1, 2017

Thom Sesma, Michael Laurence, and Duane Boutté
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Scott Carter's The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, a play that attempts to merge religious argument and personal confessionals with outlandishly over-the-top performances, opened tonight in a faltering and heavy-handed production by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

At its core is an interesting concept, based on the historic fact that each of its characters, Jefferson, Dickens, and Tolstoy, wrote his own interpretation of the Old Testament. The premise here is that the three find themselves in some sort of holding room of the afterlife, apparently sent there by God in order to accomplish something, perhaps, as they deduce, to integrate their separate Gospels into a universal and singular one.

A reasoned debate would seem to be in order. But the playwright has opted to give us a quarrelsome and self-important trio that is unable to find common ground. And, in this production at least, the whole thing comes off rather like a debate among unruly middle school students. Tolstoy (Thom Sesma) is the boastful and quick-to-anger bully, mostly targeting the class clown, Dickens (Duane Boutté). For his part, Dickens dances and prances about the stage, rattling off (in a cloying affectation of British English) his great successes as a writer, and dropping lines from his famous works at every opportunity; "This is the worst of times," he declaims at one point as Tolstoy stabs him with a pen. Meanwhile, the genteel Jefferson (Michael Laurence) is saddled with playing the role of the hapless substitute teacher, trying without much success to manage the behavior of the other two. ("Count to ten," he tells Tolstoy. "Perhaps we should not physically harm each other.")

There is little more to the first half of the 85-minute play than these sorts of shenanigans that dominate the action as each of the characters tries to sell the other two on his version of the Bible. Ultimately, the task to which they have set themselves proves to be unresolvable, as they childishly argue about every point of disagreement and cannot find common ground. Later, the play takes on a more sober tone, as their initial goal is replaced by a new one, that of mapping out a path to redemption. As Jefferson puts it, "Is the world better off for our having lived?"

Each of the characters must, with humility, confess his flaws as a human. Tolstoy and Dickens must own up to their failed personal relationships, while Jefferson must come to grips with his dealings with slavery. It is in this section, as we finally move away from the foolishness that came before, that the play takes on some heft, though in this production, it is a matter of too little, too late. Director Kimberly Senior might have found a more harmonious approach for reconciling this serious question with the outlandishness of the performances she has drawn from her actors for most of the evening. What is lacking that might have served the purpose of creating that elusive balance is the kind of surreal and breezy playfulness that the Marx Brothers were able to capture in their heyday. Instead, this clumsily rendered production only manages to emphasize the play's inherent flaws, in which the big questions it poses are addressed only superficially in favor of way too much posturing and clowning.

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord
Through October 22
Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, three blocks South of Christopher Street, just West of Seventh Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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