Though Thomas Jefferson wasn’t the Founding Father renowned for chopping cherry trees, he cherry-picked Scripture with aplomb in producing his famous Jefferson Bible.
As it turns out, novelist Charles Dickens also assembled a volume of his personal likes from the King James Bible, and spiritual overachiever Leo Tolstoy taught himself Hebrew and Greek just to translate and harmonize the sources for his own pared “Gospel in Brief” reboot.
This obscure historical fluke inspired Scott Carter to envision a theological debate between these three latter-day gospelists in his funny and thought-provoking new play, “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” at NoHo Arts Center.
Carter knows a thing or two about lively, accessible formats for the engagement of ideas, having served as executive producer and writer for the Bill Maher series “Politically Incorrect” and “Real Time.” Carter’s loopy premise here is an afterlife in which Jefferson (Larry Cedar), Dickens (David Melville) and Tolstoy (Armin Shimerman) find themselves locked in a stark interrogation room for all eternity unless they can reconcile their sharply differing biblical rewrites.
They quickly get on one another’s nerves: Imagine the dramaturgical love-child of “Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds” and Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.”
Carefully compiled references and biographical details whiz by in Matt August’s finely tuned staging, with superb performances illuminating the clashing personalities that drive three discordant takes on Christianity.
Melville’s hilariously theatrical Dickens defends the poetic miracles that Cedar’s coolly rational Jefferson rejects as insulting to reason, while Shimerman’s impassioned Tolstoy advocates the example of austerity set by Jesus.
The full significance of having the theater’s fourth wall serve as the interrogation room’s one-way mirror emerges only with the characters’ recognition that the way out of their intellectual impasse is through self-reflection — for only in facing the ways even the greatest among us fall short of their ideals can the door be opened to forgiveness and grace.
“The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord,” NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends February 23. $35. (818) 508-7101 or www.nohoace.com. Running time: 90 minutes.