BWW Review: Stage Guild's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THOMAS JEFFERSON, CHARLES DICKENS, AND COUNT LEO TOLSTOY: DISCORD
One of the funnier political bits of the season was one Bill Maher did last fall on "The King Trump Bible," reinterpreting the text using the pithy phrases of crude frontrunner.
No doubt Scott Carter, a longtime producer for HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," had a hand in it. Besides being a sharp writer, he is also familiar and curious about the Bible and its history - two traits that also served him in writing "The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord," which just opened at the Washington Stage Guild.
A cross between Sartre's "No Exit" and Steve Allen's "Meeting of Minds" that gathered famous figures of various eras to discuss big issues, the production directed by company artistic director Bill Largess has the towering characters of the longwinded title stuck in a room in the afterlife, trying to guess what it was that put together the Russian writer, American president and English author of differing eras.
After some time ,they hit on it - they each produced their own versions of the Bible. Jefferson's stuck to the historic fact; Dickens emphasized the miracles; Tolstoy the philosophy of Jesus.
Still not sure of their purpose together, when they are presented with paper and pen they decide it's so they can forge their own single version from their three approaches.
There follows all manner of philosophy, arguments and declarations, less drama than stimulating seminar. At times they stop speaking to one another and just pace. At others, they are literally at each other's throat. At the drama's deepest points they talk about their lives in totality, their regrets, and whether they made the best of their time.
Heretofore staged mostly out West, including Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse, the modest Washington Stage Guild gives it a solid production, thanks mostly to the actors who (we imagine) nail their historical figures.
Brit Herring, most recently seen in the Shakespeare Theater Company and Guthrie Theatre co-production of "The Critic" and "The Real Inspector Hound," is a credible Jefferson in demeanor and thoughtfulness, adding a touch of gentlemanly Virginian drawl as he justifies his own slave-holding amid writing a Declaration of Independence.
Peter Boyer plays Dickens broadly but believably as a hopeless egotist. Steven Carpenter presents Tolstoy as the relative peasant. All three are enhanced by Kelvin Small's costumes, well suited to each, particularly the president and Dickens, in foppish striped waistcoat that Tolstoy compares to a clown's suit.
Molly Hall's setting, an afterlife anteroom, is as jarring to the audience as it is to the characters, unfortunately, a sparce space in cloudy colors furnished only by incongruous metal chairs and table unfamiliar to all three.
The lighting by Marianne Meadows is harsh enough to befit an investigation room, but it also glares unnecessarily into the audience's eyes as well.
Agreeing on what's in the Bible shouldn't be the litmus test to provide admission to heaven (talk about "New Rules").
But "The Gospel..." provides a lively enough theological discussion to make fit easily with the usual classic fare of the Stage Guild. It sounds, in fact, just like something that could have been written a century earlier, in an age without cable TV, by company favorite George Bernard Shaw.
The only thing missing is an audience Q&A with the characters to follow. And maybe Ann Coulter.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
"The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord" continues through April 24 at the Washington Theatre Guild at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington D.C. 240-582-0050 or online.