From left, Larry Cedar, Armin Shimerman and David Melville in "The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord"
© Photo by Michael Lamont

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, LA

So, three guys were sitting around a bar rewriting the Gospels. That's the set-up to this funny, provocative work that is entertaining for all its intellectual heft.

By Scott Carter

Directed by Matt August

With Larry Cedar, David Melville, and Armin Shimerman

Geffen Playhouse, Audrey Skirball Kenis Stage, Los Angeles

Oct. 7 – Nov. 23, 2014

Put off by the weighty title of the Geffen's latest offering on its more innovative stage? Take it from me, there's no need to be. It is OK if you have forgotten all but the barest outline of your literature and philosophy classes. Nor does it matter if you, like me, never appreciated the distinctions between the Gospels of, say, Matthew and Luke or Mark and John. Author Scott Carter — producer of the first 1,100 episodes of "Politically Incorrect," among other credits — serves up a brisk 85 minutes that feels like a spoof by a talented group of college students at a selective institution who have just finished those courses. The convoluted title suggests you would not be wrong in this quasi-academic interpretation. Carter's script taps into familiar quotes awakening the literature synapses that may have gone dormant in your brain in the intervening years. It's not an accusation; I'm just sayin', maybe you, like me, have forgotten some of those undergraduate courses. Maybe you have mostly stuck to more contemporary matters since. You will still laugh along as you evaluate the opinions of this newly holy trinity.

Here is the set-up: three guys walk into a bar. No, no, no. There were these three guys: Thomas Jefferson (Larry Cedar), Charles Dickens (David Melville), and Count Leo Tolstoy (Armin Shimerman). Each in his own time thought the Gospels could use some tweaking and wrote his own version of the first four chapters of the New Testament. During eternity they find themselves thrown into a room whose door is locked from without. Yes, yes, yes, think Sartre for this "No Exit" conceit or don't; it probably won't matter but you will feel smarter if you do. After some individual puffery, the men figure out they have all been thrown together because of their gospel writings. The challenge, whose solution will unlock the door, is to come up with a common gospel. Easier said than done. No man with the hubris to construct his own gospel is likely to be swayed by another man similarly endowed. The three accomplished actors come at their roles with the casual zeal of collegiate thespians and the polish of old pros. Cedar's Jefferson is the self appointed arbiter of their conflict while sanctimoniously putting forward his rationalist views. Melville's Dickens is insufferably full of himself, claiming the moral superiority of fame and having come up from poverty. Shimerman as Tolstoy presents a pseudo-bohemian front, arrogantly wearing the mantle of austerity, putting himself forward as an exemplar of Jesus while not exactly divesting himself of all of his count-ly holdings. It certainly looks like eternity will go on forever for these guys.

Takeshi Kata's spare set is a cut above the average precinct or TV show interpretation of an interrogation room, but you get the idea. Before the curtain rises, figuratively of course, and at key points during the action, Michael Nyman's pulsing music melodramatically keys the building tension. The selection is brilliant. Their costumes make the men: Jefferson in courtly attire, Dickens in over the top frippery, Tolstoy, the make believe peasant. The production sparkles without overwhelming the material. All are revealed as their own brand of pomposity and less godly than their public selves.

When you exit the theater — remember, your door is not locked — will you feel enlightened? I rather doubt that. "Discord" is a play with a terrific set-up, wit, and energy. It is not about illumination. Will you have been entertained without feeling either talked down to or without having had your intelligence insulted? I feel better about wagering that you will have been entertained even if you wish there had been more of a story arc.

Karen Weinstein

Los Angeles ,
Weinstein is a clinical psychologist who teaches in the medical school at UCLA. She also holds a master's degree in Urban Studies and has a strong interest in history and architecture, as well as the theater.