Three famous thinkers locked together in Hell is the jokey setup for Scott Carter’s awkwardly-titled but sparkling “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord,” at the Geffen Playhouse. As the producer of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” for more than a decade, Carter knows something about assembling a sharp, entertaining meeting of minds, and his variation on Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” especially in such assured hands as helmer Matt August’s, should be catnip for regional-theater season subscribers yearning for a little food for thought with their fun.
“Hell is other people,” one of Sartre’s trapped souls concludes, and Carter couldn’t contrive a trio of distinguished historical personages more certain to piss each other off for all eternity. Wrapped in Ann Closs-Farley’s colorful regalia and a flamboyant theatrical mien, bitchy Dickens (David Melville) quickly earns the baleful eye of fierce Tolstoy (Armin Shimerman), muttering in peasant garb about the superior virtue of the toiling serf. Our bewigged, sanguine third president (Larry Cedar) exudes the airy blend of outward modesty and inner smugness sure to infuriate his new comrades no less than it did his 18th century contemporaries.
Practical men above all, the trio sidelines its natural disaffection to figure out the wherefores of their joint imprisonment. Each, it emerges, had in life composed an idiosyncratic revision of the Christ story. What better way to pass the time — and perhaps get at why God or nature or chance has thrown them together — than to compare notes?
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Distilling each egotist’s Biblical gloss sparks multiple connections to our own day’s faith issues. Dickens’ narrative is tailor-made for kids in a “Christmas Carol” vein, wallowing in Herod and horror, while Jefferson rejects everything but Jesus’s plainest moral teachings. Tolstoy spurns both “idiocy” and “stale rationality” in detailing a personal spiritual quest, which prompted him to omit half the Ten Commandments and locate the secret of life in three little words.
An effort to meld the versions comes to naught, nor can any one of them persuade the others to his own viewpoint. The resulting stalemate leads to this intellectual symphony’s most poignant movement, in which each luminary wracks his conscience to confess how thoroughly he failed to live up to his expansive ideals while on earth.
Carter’s homework really comes to the fore here, dispensed through telling character details — the president’s ambivalence about slavery; Dickens’ and the Count’s mismanaged marriages — rather than dry scholarship. The ultimate hypothesis of how genius might be made to endure the afterlife feels remarkably on point, and deeply satisfying.
Having honed their act almost a year ago when the work debuted on LA’s version of Off Off Broadway, the Geffen Playhouse cast clicks with unforced assurance. Melville transitions sensitively from snappy banter to earnest self-examination, while Cedar truly seems to embody the elusive Founding Father complete with plausible half-southern, half-Brit accent.
Shimerman, maybe the most authentic of all, fully exploits Russian bleakness and gets many of the best lines. (Bad writers can be good men, Tolstoy notes. “As I told my dear friend, Anton Chekhov, as I kissed him good-bye on his deathbed, ‘I hate Shakespeare’s plays but yours are worse.’”)
The actors receive an estimable showcase through August’s exemplary pacing and meticulous production values. Takeshi Kata’s futuristic setting, metallic and forbidding, would terrify the souls of any era, while Michael Nyman’s musical interludes carry us from scene to scene in bursts of modernistic energy and classical grace.