IOWA CITY — If you go to Riverside Theatre’s current show, “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord,” you’re going to want to go back, so you might as well buy two tickets at the get-go.
“The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” is one of the most thought-provoking plays to come along in this generation, but it speaks to all generations. Audible reactions rippled through the near-capacity crowd for Friday’s opening night, and spirited conversations continued into the lobby afterward.
One patron introduced himself to director Adam Knight as “a minister of the gospel for 39 years,” then declared the play “a masterpiece.” Another audience member wrote on Facebook: “So happy I went. I want to go again.”
The piece, which debuted in Los Angeles in 2014, is making its Iowa debut on the Riverside stage, and continues there through Feb. 10. It’s a show of many layers, peeled away inch by inch over the course of 90 minutes — with no intermission to break the spell.
Springing from the mind of Scott Carter, writer and producer for television’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “Politically Incorrect,” he borrows from those shows’ formats to bring together three of history’s finest minds to debate one hot-topic button.
One big difference: the play’s three men are dead.
Their lives touched three centuries, overlapping in succession. Thomas Jefferson lived from 1743 to 1826; Charles Dickens from 1812 to 1870; and Leo Tolstoy from 1828 to 1910.
One by one, they enter a sterile room containing a door with no handle, a metal table with a drawer that doesn’t open, and three metal folding chairs. The “fourth” wall has a large cutout window, allowing the audience the see the action unfold as if seated in front of one-way glass. A red warning light pulses to a heartbeat as each man enters the room.
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The technical aspects add to the mystery and history at play. S. Benjamin Farrar’s scenic and lighting design create the claustrophobic feel of an escape room from which there is no apparent escape. Bri Atwood’s sound design builds tension between scenes, while captions highlighting the action are projected on the picture frame at the left side of the stage, from the audience’s point of view.
Karle Meyers’ costumes capture each personality perfectly: the polish of gentleman scholar Thomas Jefferson, the whimsy of the colorful Charles Dickens, and the peasant class which captured Leo Tolstoy’s fancy.
Each personality is perfectly embodied by an A-list cast of Corridor actors: Matthew James as the quiet Jefferson, Tim Budd as the effusive Dickens and Joshua Fryvecind as the mercurial Tolstoy. Dialect coach Katy Hahn has embodied each actor with the accent and cadence of his native country, to further mold and point out the differences between each man.
The discord begins as soon as they discover each other’s identity, and the fact that they’re trapped together, perhaps for eternity. Are they in Heaven, Hell or some great in-between? Are they to atone for their sins? And why do they all appear to be in their 40s, even though Jefferson and Tolstoy died in their early 80s and Dickens at 58?
Jefferson hasn’t heard of either man, which deals a serious blow to the egomaniacal, almost cartoonish Dickens. His wound begins to heal when he hears that Tolstoy saw him perform onstage.
Since they’re geniuses, it doesn’t take long for them figure out that they’ve each written their own interpretation of the biblical Gospel stories — but from three wildly differing dogmas. That’s where the discord sets in.
Who is right and who is wrong? What if no one is right and all are wrong? Who can argue his views most successfully? What if they are being tasked to write a new Gospel merging their disparate views?
The play begins as a comedy with laughs galore swirling around the men’s barbs and bons mots. But about halfway through, the tone changes course. Tolstoy’s furor comes to the fore and Dickens’ frustration begins to bubble amid the toil and trouble. All the while, Jefferson remains calm, as a steady voice of self-assurance. Until that, too, crumbles.
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Ultimately, they must lay aside their scholarship and self-aggrandizing philosophies, and reveal the seamy underbelly of their true selves and beliefs. They must break each other down in order to build themselves back up.
Along the way, audience members are unwittingly tasked with looking inward as well, to see where their own beliefs lie, amid the questions raised.
And that is the beauty of theater, which holds a mirror to society and beckons it accountable.
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If you go
• What: “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord”
• Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
• When: To Feb. 10; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
• Tickets: $30 adults; $28 ages 60 and over and 30 and under; $24 veterans, military personnel and immediate family; $10 students kindergarten through college; Riverside Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or Riversidetheatre.org
• Extra: Talkbacks moderated by Anna Barker following performances Jan. 26 and Feb. 9