Three superb performances, a snazzy design package, a delightful opening sequence, and then a whole lot of speechifying add up to a less than compelling ninety minutes as the NoHo Arts Center presents the World Premiere engagement of Scott Carter’s The Gospel According To Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens And Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord.
Carter’s premise is an intriguing one, that the three literary geniuses of the play’s title just happen to find themselves in the same sterile, sparsely furnished white room just moments after each one’s dying breath, no matter that Jefferson met his maker in 1826, Dickens in 1870, and Tolstoy in 1910. As for why they are in each other’s presence, it would seem at first to be anyone’s guess.
Discord’s earliest minutes are its most engaging, playwright Carter giving us a trio of characters in absurdist farce mode, the laughs coming one after another as each man reacts in his own trademark way to the bizarre circumstances in which he finds himself.
It takes a bit of “getting to know you” chat for the threesome to figure out what they have in common: that all three are (sorry, were) Biblical scholars, and that each one, during his lifetime, came up with his very own “Gospel According To …”
The doldrums set in when they take the floor one by one to dictate these personal gospels, adding up to lengthy soliloquies that seem even longer minus the give-and-take exchanges that would spice things up. (If you’ve ever dozed off the moment the preacher has started sermonizing, you’ll know what I mean.)
It’s a shame, since rarely have three more gifted actors blessed an L.A. stage at one time than Larry Cedar, David Melville, and Armin Shimerman, each one at the top of his game in Discord, if not as well served by the piece as they deserve to be. Cedar’s delightfully haughty Southern gentleman, Melville’s deliciously flamboyant English fop, and Shimerman’s amusingly dour Russian is each one an award-worthy gem of a performance. Gregory Linington understudies all three roles, a doozy of an assignment.
Matt August directs with visual flair, aided and abetted by a Broadway-caliber design team in a production in which clearly no expense has been spared. (The cast, for example, get paid Equity salaries rather than stipends under the kind of AEA contract mostly unheard of in a “99-seat” production, “by the generosity of Home Box Office.”) You’ve probably seen scenic designer Takeshi Kata’s work at the Taper or the Geffen, and Discord’s deceptively simple set is a stunner, particularly as lit by Luke Moyer—never better—and backed by Cricket S. Myers’ masterful sound design. Jeffrey Elias Teeter’s production design is likewise as imaginative as it gets, while Tris Beezley gets thumbs up for her properties, including three very different writing instruments. Kudos too to Brian Obee’s graphic design. As for costume designer Ann Closs-Farley, there may be a mere three outfits onstage, but each one is a distinctive period treat.
The Gospel According To Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens And Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord is produced by Kevin Bailey. Diana Copeland is associate producer. Laura Rin is stage manager. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA.
Ultimately, though The Gospel According To Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens And Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord offers Southland theatergoers the opportunity to see three stage masters at the peak of their craft, its trio of stars deserve more lively, engaging material than they have been given.
NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.
January 30, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont