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Theatre in Review: The Gospel According to...(Primary Stages)/Ace (Marjorie S. Deane Theater)

Michael Laurence, Thom Sesma, Duane Boutte. Photo: Jeremy Daniel. Bottom: Ted Greenberg. Photo: Hunter Canning

In one of those odd coincidences that happen from time to time, two recently opened plays are by writers who have had substantial careers in talk television. The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord is by Scott Carter, an executive producer/writer for Real Time with Bill Maher and its predecessor, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. With those resume items, you might expect an abrasive, if not scathing, social satire, not the rather fussy exercise in comparative literature and theology currently on offer at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

Carter plops these three big names into a Sartrean locked room of the afterlife. As designed by Wilson Chin, it is the most anonymous of spaces, furnished only with a table and two straight-back chairs. The introductions are rather awkward, especially since Jefferson has no idea who his two roommates are -- and none of them are used to anonymity. In an early preview of the script's attempts at humor, Dickens mutters, "Hardly a 'far, far better place than I have ever known'."

At first, a general sense of confusion reigns: Where are they and for what purpose? However, thanks to certain signs, they conclude that they are to write a new edition of the Gospel. Although all three are nominal Christians, this proves to be an uphill climb. Dickens spins out an inspirational saga in which Jesus moves from one miracle to the next; Jefferson nixes such passages, removing any trace of the supernatural. The account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes is an insult to the intelligence, he insists, adding, "I preferred morals to mysteries." Just to rub it in, he adds, "The virgin birth belongs not in the Bible but in Mother Goose." Tolstoy seconds these sentiments, sending Dickens into a tizzy: "Your gospel is a deflated soufflé," he complains, "a soupy puddle of pudding to my monumental marzipan of miracles!" Yes, he really does talk like that.

The Bible project abandoned, they turn on each other, leading to a series of less-than-revelatory interrogations that expose each man's essential hypocrisy. Jefferson, the defender of the rights of man, must explain why he remained a slaveholder all his life. Similarly, Tolstoy's peasant blouse and back-to-the-land philosophy looks pretty flimsy when a light is cast on his ownership of serfs. And Dickens' public image as "the exemplar of British domesticity" withers when he admits to turning away from his wife -- grown fat and slow from having too many children -- for an adulterous relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan.

Except for one passage, in which Jefferson squirmingly defends his slaveholding ways, the play forgoes dramatic fireworks for a tripartite serving of potted history, filled with facts you've probably heard before. (The Sally Hemings story gets trotted out, as does Tolstoy's ignominious death in a snowbound railway station and Dickens' obsession with the professional theatre.) Given Carter's day job, working for one of television's most polarizing figures, the flatness of the enterprise is remarkable. There isn't a single witty or memorable line in the script.

Kimberly Senior's production at least keeps things moving, paced by Lindsay Jones' rather overbearing original music and Caite Hevner's projections, which use big, black-and-white graphics to announce the title of each of the play's sequences. (David Hyman's costumes and Jen Schriever's lighting are solid contributions.) Michael Laurence is a most convincing Jefferson, his courtly Southern manners belied by an edgy, faintly neurotic quality, quite possibly caused by his inability to admit his moral failures. Thom Sesma's Tolstoy is a convincingly cold-eyed observer of other men's corruptions.

However, Duane Boutté, taking note of Dickens' love of acting, plays him like a Victorian ham in the Henry Irving tradition, rolling his Rs and turning the most mundane line into a grand pronouncement, an approach that quickly grows irritating, robbing the character of his stature.

Then again, Carter's script does little for any of its three protagonists, reducing them instead to a set of Wikipedia-ready character traits. The discord of the title turns out to be little more than a spat between famous names. Why throw these three figures together unless you can make us see them in a new light?

Ace is by Ted Greenberg, who, in the 1980s, was part of a dream team (including Chris Elliot and David Yazbek) writing for David Letterman. This solo piece picks up a little later in the decade, however, when Greenberg was driving a cab, having quit Letterman. As it happens, Greenberg's specialty was quitting: He quit his high school's track team. He resigned from the Society of American Magicians. And as Ace begins, he is almost a college dropout: He has less than a day to deliver a paper on Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene or his provisional diploma from Harvard -- now nearly a decade old -- will be revoked.

It doesn't take long to find the source of this behavior. His father, Ace, a big wheel at Bear Stearns, is such an overbearing presence in his son's life that Ted would rather throw in the towel than face failure. Much of Ace tracks Ted as he tries to finish the Spenser paper and rack up a record fifty fares, all in the same day. As the clock winds down, the suspense builds. Just to make things interesting, this is the very day that Ivan Boesky, the noted financier, is facing arrest -- and who turns up in the passenger seat of Ted's cab. He is also in possession of an envelope to be delivered to the building where Ted grew up -- and where his father still lives.

There are no bombshells in Ace, just plenty of New York color and a relatively mild coming-to-terms between father and son. One or two episodes stand out, most notably an encounter with the novelist Kent Haruf that serves to highlight Ted's rather studied lack of ambition. Overall, however, it's a modestly scaled piece -- really a kind of short story for the theatre -- but it doesn't overstay its welcome, and Ted Greenberg, under the direction of Elizabeth Margid, makes pleasant company for an hour or so.

The production has a sleek, minimal production design, with a neon sign spelling out the play's title and a series of brushed aluminum panels on which Guy de Lancey, the scenic and lighting designer, projects a series of lighting chases that create a sense of moving in traffic. Luqman Brown's sound design is a veritable symphony of city noises -- passing traffic, car alarms, engines, and radio broadcasts. (Ted chooses radio stations based on his assessment of his customers, but he's a 1010 WINS man himself.)

Ace is no world-beater, but it's an amiable way of spending an hour, and you're likely to be happy that it turns out like it does. In any case, you're bound to look at the next taxi driver you encounter with fresh eyes. -- David Barbour

(11 October 2017)

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