A quartet of Big Idea plays has opened over the past two weeks, exploring the intersections of art, psychology and history. Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play, co-presented by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Evidence Room, has been around since at least 2005, with productions at Arena Stage in Washington, Chicago's Goodman Theatre and Yale Rep. No worries that it took so long to get here: A theological fantasia about a medieval passion play performed in a 1575 English village, then in 1934 Germany, and finally in South Dakota of the late 1960s isn't going to age quickly.
Bart DeLorenzo's staging of this wonderful ensemble underscores Ruhl's connections of Christianity's creation myth to sibling rivalries through the ages, and to the reasons wars are fought. In one scene, the Village Idiot (Brittany Slattery) and a Vietnam Vet (Christian Lefler), use their fingers to flick, respectively, the Holocaust and the Vietnam war off their noses and onto the ground below, like pieces of lint. There, no more war, the soldier says, apprehensively. Not quite, the Idiot says. The moment is a small ruby, like so many moments marbling this entrancing production.
The demise of language is the big idea at the Ahmanson, where Christopher Plummer performs A Word or Two, a one-man rumination on the books that shaped him. As directed by Des McAnuff, this is a genial, candid, amusing and bemusing soliloquy of recollections and recitations by an elderly gent who fears that our culture is discarding the sanctity of words. Though the works of Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carroll that he recites so grandiloquently may be losing currency, I don't think that's enough to make his thesis valid. (The use and style of language have always evolved.) Nonetheless, the show is pleasant enough, as Plummer ambles around a cliff of books rising at an angle (set by Robert Brill), and keeps the audience entranced for 80 minutes.
Clete Keith's The Different Shades of Hugh at the Road Theatre Company concerns a struggling painter (Coronado Romero, pleasingly befuddled) who lives in a downtown loft. He's tortured by what he perceives as his own artistic mediocrity, and by a controlling ex-wife (Whitney Dylan, slightly grating, but that's also in the writing), who insists that he take his medication for psychosis. He's also tortured by a neighbor (Stephen Smith Collins, nimble and sleek) who owns a gallery across the street. The gallery owner is the devil because his motive is pure commerce, and he's also a pedantic art critic who treasures his own unshakable opinion of what's good art and what isn't. The gallery has a pretty, sympathetic blond employee (Ellie Jameson) who is also tortured, by her boss's tyranny.
This generic premise becomes far more intriguing after the artist stops taking his medication. Suddenly, phantoms of Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh (Tom Musgrave and Zachary Mooren, doing a lovely vaudeville duo) crash into the garret to help our artist create memorable portraits and landscapes, born of self-destructive hallucinations. With good reason, his lunacy also drives his concerned ex slightly batty. This is where it becomes clear why this theater invested energy developing this play, and why Sam Anderson chose to direct it. As Adam Flemming's projection design and Keith's play remind us, van Gogh's breathtaking Starry Night was painted by a man who cut off his own ear.
So three guys walk into a room, and one of them says ...
This is the premise of Scott Carter's The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, presented by a trio of production companies at NoHo Arts Center. (Full disclosure: For both Gospel and Hugh, the press rep is David Elzer, who is a co-sponsor of my "Stage Raw" theater discussion website, currently under construction.)
The play is a brainy, sitcom spin on Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. The room is stark white (set by Takeshi Kata), though the video projections of text and images bouncing across the walls provide director Matt August with the intellectually buoyant tone he seeks. The guys are obviously Jefferson (Larry Cedar), Dickens (David Melville) and Tolstoy (Armin Shimerman).
After struggling to understand why they've been thrust into Purgatory, they realize that they each wrote his version of the Gospel, and their task is to create one they can agree on. Good luck: Dickens' gospel is the force of literature, which to the spiritualist Tolstoy is a trifling diversion (try telling that to Christopher Plummer!). Meanwhile, Jefferson's passion lies in the cleansing balm of representative democracy.
On some level, they're all hypocrites, of course, which reduces their arguments to masks — or does it? Do the flaws of the artist or philosopher really diminish the art or philosophy? The play offers no answer to that question, and rightly so, since it is an eternal paradox.
The performances are idiosyncratically stylish. Shimerman's Tolstoy in particular lends an impassioned gravity that prevents the production's sometimes cloying flippancy from becoming merely trivial.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THOMAS JEFFERSON, CHARLES DICKENS AND COUNT LEO TOLSTOY: DISCORD | By Scott Carter | Presented by the NoHo Arts Center, Independent Shakespeare Company and Efficiency Studios | Noho Performing Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Through Feb. 23 | (818) 508-7101, ext. 6 | nohoace.com
PASSION PLAY | By Sarah Ruhl | Presented by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Evidence Room | Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A. | Through March 16 | (310) 477-2055 | odysseytheatre.com
THE DIFFERENT SHADES OF HUGH | By Clete Keith | Presented by the Road Theatre Company, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Through March 15 | (866) 506-1248 | roadtheatre.org
A WORD OR TWO | Written, arranged and performed by Christopher Plummer | Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Through Feb. 9 | (213) 972-4400 | centertheatregroup.org