Addison — Sometimes it seems like a title gives it all away. WaterTower Theatre, for instance, is producing Scott Carter’s The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. That pretty much tells the whole story, right? Except that this is more about these three historical figures than Jesus. And they’re in hell. And it’s funny. Okay, there may be more going on here in Emily Scott Banks’ buoyant but booksmart production. It just may take a little while to find its legs on the ground.
Set designer Bradley Gray steals the focus immediately with a tilted pedestal stage over a moat of modern rubble backed by graffiti styled painted flats of what looks like the billowy folds of the cerebellum. Further distracting from the trio on stage are a random assortment of chairs floating above the action and audience by virtue of tightly strung wires. Occasionally, lighting designer Jojo Percey will accentuate some of the catawampus seating, tantalizingly trussed just out of reach and comprehension.
Into this maelstrom of misdirection comes a dream team of egotism. Titans of thought for their time, the scenario brings them together in a supernatural afterlife that allows them to appear contemporaneously as they were in the prime of each of their lives, dressed in period attire by designer Sylvia Fuhrken Marrs. It is important to note that the play comes from the pen of Scott Carter, who is executive producer and writer on Real Time with Bill Maher. That helps explain the elaborate setup.
All the better to joke you with, my dear.
The movement, at first, follows Sartre’s No Exit. The three enter individually and have to piece together where they are and why. But in this afterlife outing, Carter replaces Sartre’s philosophical woe with wonkish wit. It’s the kind of humor that fuels our nightly cable current event comedy: info, info, joke. Only the events are far from current. And therein lies the conundrum. How to get the audience invested in these thinkers.
Each of the actors tries a different approach. John-Michael Marrs takes Dickens’ penchant for performance as license to be the most expansive of the three, blatantly playing to fourth wall, which is exposited as a mirror. As Marrs choses to move unfettered, Jeremy Schwartz piles on the pain. His Tolstoy is a Russian bear of a man who matches every internal obstacle with intensity. His performance is a wrestling match that he is winning. Completing the triangle is Ian Ferguson’s introspective Jefferson who, according to the script, was not fond of public speaking.
Consequently, Ferguson seems cut out of the fun the other two are having for the first movement of the evening, which consists mostly of biographical boasting accompanied by lambasting.
Eventually the trio realizes that in life each had created their own version of the gospel of Jesus accentuating their own personal philosophy. Insert topical “alternative facts” joke here. Their conjecture, bolstered by an ominous, omniscient drawer opening to reveal a pen and journal, is that they are sentenced here to work out the differences between their gospel accounts and write one version in consensus. There’s plenty of fodder here for fun. As each defends aspects of his own, he is open to scorn from the other two. Philosophers, theologians, and history buffs will get the most delight from their ill-fated efforts.
But what about the rest of us?
Director Banks works hard to keep the ball in the air by varying the stage pictures and leaning into the scene breaks with dim lights and soulful sound cues, but the audience doesn’t really hook in until the second half. When the characters fail at their gospel revision task, the show succeeds. The tone shifts radically when they see that the answer to their imprisonment may lie in self-examination instead. The mirrored fourth wall works like a confessional to which they seek absolution from themselves (and us by extension). It’s a palpable transformation from an intelligent comedic exercise to something more. When they were all being funny they were not as invested in each other and, by extension, neither were we.
The real proof of the transformation comes at the finale. If according to Sartre, “Hell is other people,” they’ve conquered it. At the end, they’re not so eager to get away from each other.
And, by extension, neither are we.