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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Writing is hard.

Now, I wish I could say I learned that from watching Scott Carter's play "The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord" at the Geffen. Truth is I learned writing is hard by enduring it.

The germ of the play is a trio of historical and literary coincidences. Turns out, during his presidency Thomas Jefferson took two King James Bibles and a pair of scissors and did some old school cutting and pasting to create his own version of the Gospels. He kept what he liked and got rid of the rest. Fast forward roughly 50 years and an ocean away where Charles Dickens, sans scissors, engaged in largely the same enterprise - except he kept a lot of what Jefferson tossed. Another 20 years and a little farther east, Leo Tolstoy takes his pen to sorting out his secret to the Gospels.

Now if this Biblical archeology sets your heart or mind a flutter, stop here. This show might be perfect for you and don't let me spoil it.

Okay, for everyone else - the conceit for the play is that immediately after their deaths these three historical gospelists find themselves locked in what looks like an interrogation room: white walls, two way mirrors, Emeco chairs - the whole deal. After a little comedic chitchat they discover that they all penned a Gospel and, of course, have to defend it. The play is a cross between Sartre's "No Exit" and Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell" which would sound promising but sadly it lacks the existential minimalism of the first and the intellectual heft of the second.

The trouble is, while Mr. Carter is clearly obsessed by the Gospels and his characters, he hasn't found a dramatic way to pit them against each other. The play washes over you like a series of index cards. When we finally get to the three Gospels, the characters basically recite a Cliff's Notes version of each with a little side talk. You get a sense for how the three minds differed but it's more of a "hunh, that's interesting" rather than an "Oh my God!"

The play's challenges aren't only structural but also tonal. What we're watching is three men struggling to find the truth, religious or otherwise. That quest isn't shared by the writing - while the three actors attack their parts with gusto - they're playing 'at' the characters rather than honestly bringing life to them. Charles Dickens is written and costumed to be a comedic foil not a seeker of truth. What we end up with is caricatures rather than men with souls.

And don't even get me started on the ending.

If you feel like going to the Geffen, skip the "Discord" and instead see "Choir Boy." There's more revelatory truth in an instant of harmony than in 90 minutes of chatter.

"The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord" plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through November 23rd.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission.

Banner Image Credit: Michael Lamont


Anthony Byrnes

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