Vibrant ‘Discord’ among big thinkers Jefferson, Dickens, Tolstoy

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Nathan Hosner (from left) as Jefferson, Mark Montgomery as Tolstoy and Jeff Park as Dickens in “Gospel...Discord” at Northlight Theatre). (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

No, it’s not a joke (although it often is as funny as it is brainy), but here’s the premise: Three men with radically different personalities and histories are catapulted, one by one, into a cold, gray interrogation room where the door slams shut quite decisively behind them. One is a founding father of the United States (not that Hamilton guy), one is the most famous British novelist of the Victorian era, and the third is a towering Russian novelist who seems to be irrationally jealous of Shakespeare.

So what happens? During the course of “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” — Scott Carter’s hugely entertaining, rapid-fire 95-minute play with the headline-expanding title and the anteroom-to-heaven (or hell) setting — these flawed but brilliant men debate such topics as the nature of God and religion, literature, slavery, marriage and success, and simultaneously expose their considerable egos and acts of hypocrisy.

The result is the very best production of Northlight Theatre’s current season, a philosophical debate bristling with mischief, mania, hubris and flamboyance, penned by a writer (best known for his work on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” and as the producer of the first 1,100 episodes of Maher’s “Politically Incorrect”) with a grand gift for making profound intellectual arguments at once accessible and hugely entertaining. Kimberly Senior’s animated direction and pitch-perfect casting also could not be more ideal.

Mark Montgomery (from left) is Tolstoy, Jeff Parker (on table) is Dickens and Nathan Hosner is Jefferson in “The Gospel” at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Mark Montgomery (from left) is Tolstoy, Jeff Parker (on table) is Dickens and Nathan Hosner is Jefferson in “The Gospel” at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

‘THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THOMAS JEFFERSON, CHARLES DICKENS AND COUNT LEO TOLSTOY: DISCORD’ Highly recommended When: Through June 12 Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie Tickets: $25 – $79 Info: (847) 673-6300; Run time: 95 minutes with no intermission

Here’s the hook: At various points in their lives, all three of these men crafted their own version of the New Testament, an exercise that required a certain degree of chutzpah, especially given their revised versions were designed to reinforce their own particular world views.

Jefferson (Nathan Hosner) pegs himself as the man of reason, the aristocratic Virginia gentleman and elegant writer who penned the Declaration of Independence, detested public speaking and served as this country’s third president (a job, he muses aloud, one must be insane to pursue). Dickens (Jeff Parker) is the frenzied, success-driven writer and narcissistic performer, who grew up in poverty, earned fame and fortune and the heart of his public, and was a firm believer that the spirit (imagination, emotions, Christianity) is of utmost importance. As for Tolstoy (Mark Montgomery), he is the man of the word, whose ideas shifted radically throughout his long lifetime and were, as was true for the other two men, often in contradiction with his actions.

Their arguments focus in part on the meaning of the gospels — the canonical descriptions of  the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jefferson, the great champion of science, explains how he made his own cut-and-paste version of the Bible to create a book that “did not contradict nature,” and proclaiming that “the virgin birth belongs in ‘Mother Goose,’ not in the Bible.” Dickens is the great proponent of the power of storytelling, and boasts that he defined Christmas with his tale of Scrooge. Tolstoy recounts how after decades of privilege and decadence he found religion, admiring the seeming inner peace of the peasants who worked his land and preaching a “turn the other cheek” doctrine. Loving one’s fellow man, and God — rather than the institution of the Church — was, he concluded, what Jesus had in mind.

Yet before it’s all over, these men’s profound lapses are fully exposed: Jefferson’s failure to free his slaves, including his beloved mistress, Sally Hemings; Dickens’ fractious married life and feelings for his children in stark contradiction to his idealization of the family, and Tolstoy revealing how his religious conversion never fully synched with the belief system of his peasants. (As for the men’s big question — “What happens to us when we die?” — the answer is a cosmic joke: They become the subject of a play.)

The chemistry among the actors here is delicious. Hosner’s bewigged Jefferson (who died before either Dickens or Tolstoy forged their destinies) is a model of self-containment and understated hauteur. Parker has a field day as the wildly emotive, shamelessly self-aggrandizing performer. And Montgomery, in classic Russian peasant garb (cheers for Nan Zabriskie’s costumes), is at once tempestuous, cranky and probing.

Jack McGaw’s antiseptic set (artfully lit by Sarah Hughey) offers just the right vision of the afterlife, well-accented by Andrew Hansen’s sound effects and Stephan Mazurek’s sparely used projections of script.

Alas, no women made it into the room, but perhaps next time around Carter might consider a gathering of Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot and Catherine the Great.

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