“Hell Is Other Writers”
It was a surprise to discover, as I read the program for this verbosely titled play, that the distinguished credits of its author, Scott Carter, include being executive producer/writer for HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” one of my favorite political shows; I read this on the subway, in fact, while hurrying home to catch that very program. My surprise came because of the distance between this snore-worthy satire on the differences and similarities among its eponymous trio and Maher’s pungently provocative topicality.
|Thom Sesma, Michael Laurence, Duane Boutte. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
Seen previously in Los Angeles in 2014 and now getting its New York premiere in a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane, The Gospel . . . takes a hint from Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, set in a room in hell. There, Sartre brings together two women and a man who form a sexual triangle in which their mutual incompatibility will torture each for eternity, proving that “hell is other people.”
After the rise of a fancy red curtain that helps to accent his play’s theatricality, Carter places his trio—three dead, white, famous, men—in a cool, blank, ceilinged, single-doored, box of a room (designed by Wilson Chin). In it are only two metal chairs and a metal table with a drawer that opens automatically at key points in the proceedings. (How in hell did they do that, anyway?) A two-way mirror is presumed to be hanging in the empty, downstage space representing the fourth wall.
Entering one at a time, in David Hyman’s period costumes, are Thomas Jefferson (Michael Laurence), author of the Declaration of Independence, and later U.S. president; Charles Dickens (Duane Boutté), the English novelist of A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, and so on; and Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Thom Sesma), the Russian author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, among other great novels. None knows where they are, why they’re there, or, ultimately, why they’ve been brought together; no need to wonder about how far apart in time their deaths were, of course, since time bends, or whatever it is time does.
|Duane Boutte. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
This outlandish premise, which might have been the trigger for a 10-minute “SNL” sketch, is then stretched nine times beyond that boundary, with increasingly diminishing returns not helped by any of the overdone performances.
|Michael Laurence. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
Laurence, looking not-at-home in his long coat and breeches, plays Jefferson as a long-haired, physically stiff, pinch-voiced aristocrat, his Virginia accent roaming all over the map. Boutté plays Dickens as a mustachioed, pompously attitudinizing dandy, affecting an overripe, upper-class British accent. Sesma’s bearded, loudly Russian-accented (if you could call it that) Tolstoy, barefoot legs spread widely apart, and wearing a peasant blouse and sash, comes off like a faux Anthony Quinn in Zorba.
|Thom Sesma. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
There being no way out of the limbo box, these renowned writers and intellectuals determine, at Jefferson’s instigation, to examine what they share in common, and what differentiates them. This premise allows Carter to demonstrate his research bona fides and to offer up sophomoric lines that allow the audience to gloat on recognizing their source, as when Dickens ends a scene by saying “And God bless us everyone!”
|Michael Laurence, Thom Sesma. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
Jefferson, Dickens, and Tolstoy cover diverse subjects, but, most especially, religion after they discover that, because of their shared interest in Jesus Christ (expect someone to use his name as an exclamation), they all attempted their own version of the Gospel. This leads them to collaborate on a new one they can all agree on; as they quibble over its contents, many points of contention are raised regarding the historical veracity of widely accepted biblical ideas. (I’m reminded that Bill Maher made a religion-ridiculing documentary called Religulous.)
|Michael Laurence, Thom Sesma, Duane Boutte. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
If the playwright were able to raise the temperature to the heat of a Bill Maher political dispute he might have something going; instead, he gives us warmed over philosophical and theological sound bites spouted by personages played without an ounce of honest feeling. Instead of the title’s “discord” the result is dissonance.
Dickens, portrayed as traditionally pious, finds his beliefs questioned by Jefferson’s rationalism and Tolstoy’s spiritualism. Before long, each is forced to express his hypocrisy by a confession of his ethical misdeeds, and Carter gets to unload lots of now well-known biographical facts—like Jefferson’s slaveholding and his affair with Sally Hemings.
|Duane Boutte, Michael Laurence, Thom Sesma. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.|
Director Kimberly Senior’s direction flops even with fine contributions from her technical collaborators: lighting designer Jen Schriever, as my guest noted, manages some clever work within this enclosed set without revealing her sources; sound designer Lindsay Jones offers not only thumping heartbeats and explosive thunder but interesting original music; and Caite Hevner provides bold projections with slogans like “Three Jonahs,” “Dead as Doornails,” “Jesus Christ, Where Are You?,” and the like.
Late in the play, Jefferson posits the question: “Is the world better off for us having lived?” Of course, it is. But is the world any better off for having Carter’s play in it? Need I say?
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through October 22