Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through June 12
By ANNE SPISELMAN
If “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” were as tedious as its title, there would be little point in sitting through Scott Carter’s well-researched 2014 play. But Carter, best known as the Executive Producer/Writer of “Real Time with Bill Maher” and, in the mid-1990s, as writer/producer of “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher,” has a knack for infusing weighty topics with wit and wisdom. Add savvy director Kimberly Senior and a trio of Chicago’s top actors, and you have a reasonably animated 90-minute debate among three historical giants.
Sure, the set-up is a gimmick, and the characterizations are stereotypical, but that doesn’t make the men less entertaining, especially when they clash and expose each others hypocrisies. Before that, though, in fact at the beginning, they’re thrust one-by-one in the order they lived into a sterile locked room—designed by Jack Magaw and lit by Sarah Hughey—and try to figure out where they are and why.
It doesn’t take them long to realize that they’re dead and probably in some sort of purgatory, though in this riff on Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” hell—defined in that play as “other people”—seems like a possibility. Ascertaining what they have in common takes longer, allowing for ample airing of each man’s accomplishments and how he died, as well as some likes and dislikes.
Much of this is stuff a student should know, but the refresher course doesn’t hurt. Jefferson (1743-1826), of course, was the third U.S. president and responsible for the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the young country, but not everyone remembers that he hated public speaking, which is made much of here. Victorian novelist Dickens (1812-1870), known for “A Christmas Carol,” “Oliver Twist,” and other classics, became one of the first modern celebrities with his extensive book-reading tours. Tolstoy (1828-1910), who inherited great wealth and an estate as a child but preferred to live like a peasant after he converted to Christianity, was a great fan of Dickens but reviled Shakespeare.
When the discussion turnsto beliefs, they hit on the answer: Each of them wrote his own version of The New Testament. Jefferson, priding himself on being a man of reason, cut and pasted his favorite sayings of Jesus together, leaving out anything magical or supernatural. Dickens, the quintessential family man in his own view, wrote “The Life of Our Lord” for his children, stressing typical Dickensian social concerns. And Tolstoy emphasized Christ’s teachings rather than historical events, culling all four Gospels for a single volume of greatest hits.
Next, presented with notebooks and pens (Jefferson marvels that they’re not quills) by an unseen force (a previously locked drawer opens), they conclude that they’re supposed to compose a new Bible that synthesizes their previous efforts, and then maybe they’ll be able to get out of the room. The first problem is that they can’t even agree on an opening line. And the arguments get even more heated after that, as philosophical considerations and recriminations fly. Jefferson is taken to task for his treatment of his slaves, especially his beloved Sally Hemings. Dickens is rebuked for abusing his family. Tolstoy’s failure to live up to his pronouncements comes under close scrutiny, too.
Though the living portraits of these towering egos play into our preconceptions, that’s part of the fun. We also get a good sense of different eras with different belief systems being thrown together, which is nicely underscored by Nan Zabriskie’s costume design. Nathan Hosner’s Jefferson maintains the most dignity and often mediates when the other two are about to come to blows. Jeff Parker seems to be having a ball as Dickens, portraying him as an excitable, puffed-up, snippy little man continually given to tooting his own horn. Mark Montgomery, with his scruffy manner and peasant garb, takes Tolstoy into cartoon territory but provides an often funny foil for the other two.
“Discord” definitely isn’t going to be for every taste, and doesn’t offer any profound insights, but I enjoyed the intellectual outing. I could also see the play being performed in schools as a way to bring history to life, though the actors would have to be as strong as the trio in Northlight’s production.