by Sheldon Gleisser
Thomas Jefferson, Leo Tolstoy, and Charles Dickens walking into a room in the Afterlife sounds like the start of a joke. And there are laughs aplenty in the play "Discord," which I saw last night at Red Herring Theater.
Yet in spite of "Discord's" premise, and its laughs, I can't exactly call it a comedy. In fact, I don't want to say much more, as the individual theater goer really should discover the play's combination of humor and poignancy for themselves.
I don't know if David Allen Vargo plays Charles Dickens as a borderline egomaniac, or if his Dickens is already well past that border. Death has not decreased any of the famous author's bluster, even in a supernaturally sealed room from which he's trying to escape. Vargo is one of Columbus' reliably best actors, and he brings both a theatrical largeness and a grounded reality to Dickens.
Scott Willis as Tolstoy stalks around the stage, brow furrowed, an aspiring peasant embarrassed by his wealth who particularly hates being called "Count." It's tempting to say Willis steals some scenes, except "Discord" is really all one scene, and the characters are so equally weighted. Willis gives a terrific, fiery, lived-in performance.
As Jefferson, Stephen Langer is the picture of cool, questing rationality...at least until he isn't. The hardest of the three men to get to in a situation designed to break them down, Langer may have the least showy role, but stick with our third president, as that may prove deceptive. Jefferson's realizations form some of "Discord's" most touching moments, and Langer, as one of my old acting teachers would have said, "really and truly sells it."
All three actors play their characters in layers, a very tough thing to accomplish, and at least half of the credit must go to director David S. Harewood, who not only lets his performers breathe, but knows how to pace what must have been a difficult play to pace. Is "Discord" a long one-act play, or a two act play with no intermission? I don't know. I do know that you might want to avail yourself of the restroom before it starts. Thanks to Mr. Harewood, "Discord's' 80-some minutes fly by as if they are 10.
Lighting this play, with its many one-room scene changes and use of projected slides, was challenging I'm sure, but lighting designer Kurt Mueller has done an amazing job. Credit must also be given to Brian A. Palmer's costumes. Wardrobe pretty much had to be flawless in a show like this, and each character from each different timeline gets his own very specific style.
Writer Scott Carpenter, having worked with comedian Bill Maher on both "Politically Incorrect" and "Real Time," probably witnessed quite a few clashes of strong, famous personalities. I can only speculate as to whether that was his inspiration for "Discord," but after watching it, I found myself driving home with the car radio off, just wanting to digest it a bit.
I was reminded of a scene in Irwin Shaw's novel "Evening in Byzantium" in which protagonist Jesse Craig is walking in Spain and happens to see Pablo Picasso. Craig is dumbstruck to the point he can't move, and lets Picasso walk right past, thinking "what could I have said to him? That he enriched my life? How do you possibly say that to somebody?"
Jefferson, Tolstoy, and Dickens enriched our lives, but they weren't perfect people. What "Discord" may be saying is that all three attained their heights not in spite of their flaws, but perhaps because of them. It is a witty, riveting evening of theater, with some of Columbus' best talents on display. I unreservedly say check it out.
"Discord" is on from January 10-27, Thurs-Sat at 8:00 PM, Sunday at 2:00 PM. Location is the Franklinton Playhouse, 566 West Rich Street, Columbus Ohio 43215.