Scott Carter’s clever comedy The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord is about how funny life after death is. Lantern Theater’s production, directed with plenty of style by James Ijames, makes a theology debate – not the usual topic for a comedy – both entertaining and intriguing. You’ll laugh and you’ll ponder.
Three guys – three brilliant guys – walk into a room (designed by Lance Kniskern). Painted a creamy white, it is furnished with only a gray table and three chairs. The “fourth wall” is an invisible mirror wherein they see themselves (and, of course, us). There is a door, over which there is an EXIT sign. Words light up on the wall: Don’t Close the Door. The door slams shut. And we’re off.
Unlike Sartre’s No Exit, in which three boring (yeah, they are) dead characters are trapped in a room (a play whose only real merit is the legacy of that very useful line, “Hell is other people”), Gospel’s characters, similarly trapped and dead, are witty, contentious, and famous. Thomas Jefferson (the elegant Gregory Isaac), Charles Dickens (the hilarious Brian McCann), and Leo Tolstoy (the vigorous Andrew Criss) are stuck with one another. In swift, economical strokes, each actor establishes a personality and a nationality; comic caricature is always based on truth. The superb costumes (designed by Millie Hiibel) hit the nail on the head.
It turns out that – historical fact – each man wrote his own version of the Gospels in an attempt to find a clearer Christian doctrine than the Bible offers. They try to create a new, collaborative Gospel but can’t even get past the first line of John without quarreling: “In the beginning was the word.” They argue, each from his own inclinations, the translation of the word logos. For Jefferson, the 18th-century rationalist, it means “reason.” For Dickens, the 19th-century sentimentalist, it means “word.” For Tolstoy, the early 20th-century guru, it means “spirit.”
Great Jeffersonian moment: Marveling at a modern pen, he murmurs, “I should have thought of that.”
Great Dickensian moment: an overly dramatic puppet show of the Christmas story.
Great Tolstoian moment: “If you want to annoy Christians, quote Christ.”
Scott Carter has been executive producer and scriptwriter for TV’s Politically Incorrect and Real Time with Bill Maher — the TV host who recently demonstrated just how dangerous performing without a script can be. Gospel provides both a serious biblical discussion and a glimpse into the lives of three major figures who were, inevitably, hypocritical men.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. Through July 2 at Lantern Theater Company, 923 Ludlow St. Tickets: $33-$45. Information: 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.