Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens & Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord
Also see Rebecca's review of Gypsy
That Carter has chosen to populate his little room in Hell (designed with immaculate sterility by Lance Kniskern, with precise lighting by Shon Causer) with three writers suggests that the audience is in for an evening of smart comedy borne from a clash of strong personalities. They don't come much stronger than Jefferson (Gregory Isaac), presented here as a prideful public intellectual; Dickens (Brian McCann), who relishes both his celebrity and his self-appointed status as history's most important novelist; and Tolstoy (Andrew Criss), who retains more than a veneer of his aristocratic bearing even while espousing a peasant aesthetic. The men butt heads from the moment fate's unforgiving door slams behind them; Carter uses both facts and quotations from their lives to distinguish and define them, but the lively proceedings never feel like a staid history lesson.
Coming from different times and cultures, the trio spend a fair amount of time trying to determine what has cleaved them together in the afterlife. The key might be related to faith: It turns out that each man crafted his own version of the Bible, convinced he could perfect the teachings and the message of God. Strictly speaking, this would make them apostates, explaining their place in Hell. But perhaps they were thrust together to produce a collaboration, a modern gospel that would perfect not only religion but humanity. Carter runs with this thread, using the potentially heretical act of rewriting the life of Christ as a vehicle to convey the complicated and frequently comedic foibles of the lives these men lived on earth.
Lantern's production is cast from strength. Isaac exudes nobility and finesse, and cuts a fine figure in Millie Hiibel's stylish, period-specific costumes; he also keenly presents some of the fatal flaws of the Founding Father's personalitychiefly, his preening pomposity and his regrettable hypocrisy. McCann's hilariously foppish Dickens has the feel of a vaudevillian caricature, suggesting the novelist's performative nature (he had originally desired to be an actor, and often gave spirited recitations of his novels). Criss makes for a muscular Tolstoy; you have no doubt this man could have worked alongside his beloved peasants on the grounds of his estate. He's also expert at presenting the conflicts of Tolstoy's bifurcated life: the reformer who never quite gave up his privileged position; the Christian whose choices were often far from Christ-like; the family man who disdained and eventually abandoned his devoted wife and children.
Discord is not without problems, large and small. Though brief and intermissionless, it still manages to somewhat wear out its welcome; the play's later scenes often begin strongly, then devolve into repetition and didacticism. Carter's script occasionally goes for cheap laughs (Jefferson makes a painfully obvious joke about political campaigning) or faux profundity (Dickens, the only born pauper of the group, claims that "the only estate I inherited was dreams"). More problematic, especially in a play about three known leches, is the lack of any female voice. Although the men eventually show some contrition for the ways they mistreated the women in their lives, the absence of a true female counterpoint tacitly lets them off the hook. Carter also regrettably perpetuates the myth that Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemmings was a forbidden love affair, rather than a brutal cycle of systemic rape.
These questionable elements occasionally impeded my enjoyment of the play as a whole, but there remains much to recommend. In that respect, director James Ijames likely deserves equal credit with Carter. Perhaps Philadelphia's most talented multi-hyphenate (he's also a brilliant actor and playwright), Ijames paces tautly and draws out the sharp but subtle power dynamics between the men. A smart director can soften the rougher edges of a work that is often very good but not entirely great. Working in concert with such a strong cast, Ijames often finds the harmony in Discord.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens & Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord continues through Sunday, July 2, 2017, at St. Stephen's Theater, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia. Tickets can be purchased online at www.lanterntheater.org, or by calling 215-829-0395.