If you wanted to generate a high ego-to-floor-space ratio, you could hardly do better than the room conjured up in the latest Washington Stage Guild production. In this well-lighted, locked chamber — which turns out to be an aspect of the afterlife — we meet Leo Tolstoy, who is impatient, unyielding and supremely smug about his own moral trajectory. Here also is Thomas Jefferson, still smarting over edits made to the Declaration of Independence. And here’s Charles Dickens, a preening coxcomb prepared to spend eternity congratulating himself on his own literary reputation. “Be good, Lev, and I might reveal who killed Edwin Drood,” the English novelist says to the “War and Peace” author in a moment of telling condescension.
The self-important writers clash in diverting fashion in “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord,” a funny and hyper-literate play of ideas by Scott Carter, an executive producer-writer for HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Directed here by Washington Stage Guild artistic director Bill Largess, and featuring a trio of able comic performances, the production will particularly entertain recovering English and comparative literature majors, lovers of Founding Fathers minutiae, and people who have brooded over what makes a fulfilling and ethical life.
Carter took inspiration from the fact that Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy all created versions of Christian scripture that reflected their own theological and worldly views. In the play, which consists of succinct scenes punctuated by blackouts and projected scene titles, the three historical figures soon realize what links them. As they quarrel about the merits of their respective gospels, the argument can get erudite — there is passing mention of the Council of Nicaea and the meaning of the Greek word “logos” — but the clashing personalities keep things lively. During a debate about whether it is possible to accept Jesus’s moral teachings while disbelieving in his miracles, Tolstoy gets so exasperated that he attacks Dickens with a fountain pen.
Glowering and barking his words, as he strides around in peasant-style attire, actor Steven Carpenter supplies a droll spoof of Tolstoy. As Jefferson — whom the play depicts as the most reasonable of the trio — Brit Herring is aptly measured, without ever being bland. And Peter Boyer is amusing as the conceited and swaggering Dickens, who is still outraged over the piracy of his works in 19th-century America. “A land of expectorating cowpokes!” he cries when Jefferson identifies himself as the country’s former president.
Designer Kelvin Small’s period- and personality-appropriate costumes create a pleasantly unsettling contrast with the room’s streamlined modern decor, designed by Molly Hall. Lighting designer Marianne Meadows and sound designer Frank DiSalvo Jr. contribute suitably otherworldly touches.
Playwright Carter’s script begins to feel overly methodical and pat as it nears its conclusion, but that too-tidy portion takes up only a small portion of the show’s 90 minutes. At one point, Tolstoy compares himself with one of “three Jonahs in a whale’s belly.” Fortunately, the writers’ predicament is much brighter and busier than this metaphor implies.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord by Scott Carter. Directed by Bill Largess. 90 minutes. Tickets: $40 to $50. Through April 24 at the Undercroft Theatre in Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Call 240-582-0050 or visit stageguild.org.