Thomas Jefferson’s skill with a quill is legendary. His skill with a straight razor is underrated. During his presidency, he sliced the logical verses out of the New Testament and glued them into his personal gospel, leaving the miraculous mumbo jumbo behind in his holey Bible. For this he was damned to hell. Sort of.
In this delightfully brain-tickling dramedy, playwright Scott Carter – producer of “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” – dooms Jefferson to a purgatorial room that resembles every writer’s hell: a blank page. Trapped with him are two gentlemen geniuses who also rewrote the gospel: Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy. To escape, they must reconcile their differences and jointly rewrite the Jesus story.
They soon realize this is as achievable as a Clinton-Trump ticket. Each man uses his sharp mental instrument to razor his own religion, selecting the snippets that appeal to his personality and confirm his preconceived notions.
Dickens sees Jesus as a supernatural David Copperfield. “I too was an infant phenomenon,” he brags, comparing himself to Christ – another poor boy turned superstar. He clings to a belief in miracles because they make a great story. He’s essentially a groupie for that Great Author in the sky.
“My Jesus is a reformer,” says Jefferson, a reformer. The self-described scientist discounts the unscientific miracles and resurrection, saying they were added to the Bible later by unscrupulous writers.
Tolstoy, a former atheist who found comfort in Christianity, feels we must “surrender our reason to faith.” Like the Russian himself, Tolstoy’s Jesus has socialist views on sharing loaves and fishes with peasants.
The actors play this odd threesome with aplomb. As Dickens, Mark Gagliardi caffeinates the play with much of its comedy and charisma. His Dickens leaps about the stage theatrically, exuding an ego as flamboyant as his fuchsia coat. Larry Cedar is pitch-perfect as Jefferson, the story’s dignified, straight-backed straight man. Armin Shimerman embodies war and peace in one soul, vacillating between violence and cheek-turning.
All of them crumble beautifully in the play’s climax, when they finally turn their attention to the room’s invisible fourth wall: a mirror. They see how they failed to live up to their gospels. How they used the slice-and-paste method to justify their sins and leave their morals on the cutting room floor.
The mirror turns itself on the audience too. It’s easy to see how we all create our personal gospels – religious or secular – by cherry-picking everything that confirms our beliefs. But perhaps, like the play’s characters, taking a good look in the mirror will set us free.
“The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord”
Arizona Theatre Company, through May 29
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