The first person to appear in Scott Carter’s The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, gingerly pushing a door open which should not be closed behind him, is Jefferson (Michael Laurence).
The Founding Father, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and third U.S. president finds himself in a modern, overhead-lit room, furnished only with a metal table and two metal chairs. It is like he has slipped through time to a bland, airless boardroom.
Next, in this Primary Stages production at New York City’s Cherry Lane Theatre, the author Dickens (Duane Boutté) appears, and then Russian novelist Tolstoy (Thom Sesma). They too make the same mistake: walk in, see they have unexpected company, close the door behind themselves, and are now trapped.
Whatever else, this is a brilliant idea and Carter should trademark it as a TV show concept immediately; every week bring together three figures from history for a theoretical meeting in a bare room. It could be the slightly more sober version of who you would have at your dream dinner party.
In Discord, first performed in 2014, the men observe each other, still unaware of each others’ identities, as baffled as we are. How did these three men, who died in 1826, 1870, and 1910 respectively, end up in whatever this place is? The lighting suggests somewhere celestial, and indeed they are in a kind of heaven’s waiting room, even though the play signals that each man should seem not as themselves just as they died, but rather aged 46 (Jefferson), 44 (Dickens), and 49 (Tolstoy), though with all the knowledge of the lives they have lived.
Carter is executive producer and writer for Real Time with Bill Maher, and so this is not just a philosophical and intellectual fight night, but also one with many laughs and barbs along the way, as pomposities and sacred cows are pricked and kicked. Behind the men, unseen by them till the very end, flash up signs that signal a change of scene; the first, inevitably, is “Don’t Close The Door.”
We see their vanities and quirks pretty quickly. Jefferson is doggedly polite but clueless, given the date of his death, as to who Dickens is. Dickens, an ebullient, flamboyant fame whore played brilliantly with maximum camp brio by Boutté, is incredulous that he does not.
“The eternal question: What happens when we die?” Dickens moans. “Turns out you just go to a room. And not even a room of one’s own. A shared room. Like a boarding house. Am I to be joined in eternity by others? Shall I soon be crammed in here like a sardine in a tin? Do I deserve that fate?”
Jefferson is dressed in military garb, Dickens in richly colored and tight velvet, and aristocrat Tolstoy as a peasant; and Sesma plays him as a restless, luxuriantly bearded, brooding temper bomb set to explode at any second.
The force of that anger will be felt by Dickens; both are writers, and both while seemingly very different have large, very easily bruised egos.
A lot of the energy in the play comes from Dickens; Boutté lipsmackingly devours his role with a lofty, very British effeteness. He begins by airily dismissing America as a land of “expectorating cowpokes” which published and performed his works without consent.
Jefferson is played by Laurence with a correct if slightly too observed lugubrious gravity; he is ever the politician about to address the nation with a burdensome and he hopes ennobling decency creasing his brow.
He gets heavy almost immediately: “In time, I came to understand all conditions of human life save one: What good did God intend by the sensation of Grief?” This leads Tolstoy tries to smash the mirror that the men can see in front of them, i.e., in front of us as the audience, but which is physically invisible to us. A thunderclap greets that move, and the men get on with being trapped together in what Dickens describes as a “cosmic foyer.”
Tolstoy—of the three Sesma has the hardest job connecting with the audience, because it feels he has the least defined character—desires eternal sleep, Jefferson holds on to reason, and Dickens memory. Tolstoy renounces Shakespeare, Jefferson reflects on the misery of his presidency, while Dickens and Tolstoy compete over which country was more grief-stricken on the occasion of their deaths. “Mother Moscow rioted at my death,” says the Russian. “National day of mourning for me,” replies Dickens.
They figure out what they had in common: Each composed a bible, and so assume they have been bought together to create a gospel incorporating—as much as possible—their shared beliefs and visions of the world. But they cannot even agree on what came at the beginning of the world. For Dickens it is word, for Tolstoy, spirit, and for Jefferson reason; and there the differences are between them sketched with brevity.
Each man then sketches his own version of the gospel, the other two interrupt, and the uncontested words distilled. Dickens gets off to what seems like a good start of familiar Bible stories, but the names of disciples and nature of miracles causes some dissension, leading to Tolstoy to stab Dickens with a pen. But the men are dead, and Dickens gets up, with my favorite line of the whole play: “Chaps, I’ve struck a sledgehammer blow for miracles!”
The skill of Kimberly Senior’s direction and Wilson Chin’s design is to make as much of the Cherry Lane Theatre’s confined space—this one celestial room—as possible. The table is moved, the men pace, lie down, and reconfigure themselves as much as possible.
Jefferson’s gospel is infinitely calmer and less dramatic than Dickens, so much so that the latter insists his parables lack any kind of life or narrative twist that so pepper the best melodramatic novels, such as that he crafted, like twins orphaned at birth realizing their true identity.
Tolstoy relates the story of his life, or as he puts it, “the grotesque joke of my existence.” Life’s meaning is revealed through faith, only if we surrender reason, he claims.
With no agreement reached on a unifying gospel, the men turn inward: Dickens confesses his many personal sins—marital breakdown, affairs, and the rest.
“Your wife died while she was still young and beautiful,” he tells Jefferson. “Mine became dull, clumsy, and fat. In a novel, I’d kill her off.”
“I was a dirty old fornicator,” Tolstoy says. “My wife resented my peasant relations. And the presence in our house of my illegitimate son. Who was my coachman.”
Jefferson claims, “I treated my slaves as family. I never beat them.” And then tells the story of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore him a child.
Why didn’t Jefferson free his slaves, asks Dickens. “Had I emancipated them, who then would shoe my horse?” Jefferson replies. “Or cook my meals? I could not live without books. Or wines. Or other comforts. Thus, in my pursuit of happiness, I kept my slaves.”
The solution, with no agreement but growing felicity between the men, is to do what each enjoys doing: to create and write.
That is a valuable and nourishing conclusion, and the degree to which the men need each other to continue in their endeavors leads the play to its teasing denouement. Tonally, it would benefit the play if the men sounded different as the play progressed; they start and go and end in much the same register. Both Dickens and Jefferson tell deeply emotional stories of their past, but mistakenly stay in the same vocal register as they do so.
Tolstoy himself feels less rooted in this trinity than Dickens and Jefferson. The play is excellent at parsing the different beliefs and facts of the men’s lives and the clashing significances of their work and legacies, and yet you want some kind of theatrical jeopardy, not rooted in the history books or known biography of the men, as to why they should be together and what could result of them being together in this strange celestial room.
As we are reminded by the men themselves, their deaths mean they cannot be existing as the bodies we see before us, which means their spirits should be as free to the playwright to take as many dramatic liberties as he or she wishes.
As You Like It
John Doyle has designed and directed the Classic Stage Company’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and it looks and feels as distinctive as any Doyle production. Lanterns hang from the ceiling to signify the trees of the Forest of Arden, and these flash green en masse for trees and a rainbow of colors… well maybe the queer panoply of relationships that the play hints at when Rosalind cross-dresses as a man?
That felt a little like the same rainbow design audiences in Central Park saw when the same play was mounted by the Public Theater recently. That had a huge cast of almost 200. This has a much smaller one, and Shakespeare’s words cut by almost a third.
It is also very confusingly staged. We don’t see the first act wrestling match, which seems like a pretty obligatory visual when staging As You Like It, and if you’re not then at least mine something from your act of contrariness.
Doyle does not, and its omission is rather first of a number of things that either don’t happen on stage or happen slightly off stage, with people running hither and thither, which again seem like willful and empty rebellions against staging rather than adding to audience pleasure and understanding.
As with Shaina Taub in the Public’s production, it is the melancholy truth-teller Jaques that steals the show from all the confused young lovers, and so you at CSC hang on Ellyn Burstyn’s dry and careworn wisdom delivered from beneath the best fedora currently to be seen on stage.
Just as distinctive, André de Shields carouses through the role of Touchstone with lithe glee. Hannah Cabell and Kyle Scatliffe are Rosalind and Orlando, but feel less like star-crossed lovers and more like burdened storytellers. Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s excellently stroppy Celia mugs confusion to the audience and sulkily refuses to do what is asked of her. Yes we know how you feel, you may find yourself thinking.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy is at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York City, until Oct. 22. Book tickets here. As You Like It is at the CSC, New York City, until Oct. 22. Book tickets here.