Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy were bickering again.
On an August morning at a rehearsal studio in Midtown Manhattan, three actors portraying these men were working on a scene from “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord,” a play by Scott Carter.
The play imagines its title characters trapped together in a room. Unsure when their purgatory will end, they begin to debate philosophy, religion and their personal accomplishments, as well as the revised accounts of the life of Jesus that each author produced in his lifetime. Primary Stages will present the play at the Cherry Lane Theater starting on Sept. 19.
At the moment, the director, Kimberly Senior (“Disgraced”), was working with the actors, Duane Boutté (as Dickens), Michael Laurence (as Jefferson) and Thom Sesma (as Tolstoy), on a scene in which Dickens, exasperated with what he calls Jefferson’s “cynical rationalism,” throws himself across a table.
Mr. Carter was here, too, dressed in a professorial suit and occasionally weighing in on the rehearsal. He explained to the group why Jefferson called his executive residence “the president’s house” and not the White House, and why Dickens particularly appreciated the biblical story of Jesus and the adulterous woman. (“For him, it’s got action, it’s got drama — it’s not merely a precept,” Mr. Carter said.)
Having worked on this scene and this play for some time now, Ms. Senior said, “It’s getting closer.”
Mr. Carter replied, “Aren’t we all.”
A polite, thoughtful, intense man, Mr. Carter does not necessarily possess the obvious résumé of a playwright who would produce a Sartre-style meditation on history and theology. He has made his living as a TV writer and producer of comedy and variety shows for more than 30 years, and is a longtime executive producer of “Real Time With Bill Maher,” the HBO late-night series.
But Mr. Carter has an omnivorous curiosity and he keeps an open mind as he pursues his own path to spiritual enlightenment.
Over a breakfast interview, he compared himself to “people who have moved from New York to L.A., and now they have to get a car, but they don’t know anything about cars.
“That was me,” he continued. “I had to get a car.”
Raised in a Protestant family, Mr. Carter said he had a life-changing, “Saul on the road to Damascus” epiphany in 1987. In New York, where he lived and worked as a stand-up comic, he had a near-fatal asthma attack and was treated for a week at Bellevue Hospital Center.
Walking home after his release, Mr. Carter said, he “went into this bliss state, like at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or Scrooge on Christmas morning.”
He explained, “I went from being either hostile or indifferent to anything having to do with religion, to having this overwhelming sensation that there’s got to be a God. And I saw everything in the world as beautiful.”
Those heightened feelings passed after a few days, but Mr. Carter said he maintained “an agreement with the universe” to be receptive to religious insight wherever it might come from, whether pamphleteers, Jehovah’s Witnesses or street-corner preachers.
In an earlier stage work, Mr. Carter created a one-man show for himself, “Heavy Breathing,” about his asthma attack and his time working as a copywriter for pornographic magazines.
When he found out that Jefferson had created his own bible by cutting and pasting parts of the Gospels into a single text, Mr. Carter began to imagine a stage production where it would be read by four actors, one for each of the Evangelists.
After later discovering Dickens’s “The Life of Our Lord,” a narrative of Jesus that the author wrote for his children, Mr. Carter contemplated a mock debate between Dickens and Jefferson.
Then Mr. Carter learned of Tolstoy’s “The Gospel in Brief.” The Russian novelist was a third literary paragon to attempt his own synthesis of the biblical canon. “My heart leapt at finding this out,” Mr. Carter said, “but it also sank because now I thought, I’ve got another two years of research.”
Friends and colleagues of Mr. Carter’s say he has an insatiable intellectual appetite and a preternatural command of everything he has read.
“He’s got one of those minds that just irritates you, because it’s like a file cabinet,” said Lewis Black, the dyspeptic comic and “The Daily Show” commentator. “‘Oh, that’s back when Chekhov was discussing his work with Robespierre.’ What? Where did you get that?”
For Mr. Carter, theater can be a place for engaging with ideas he cannot always address in conversations with other comedy writers, Mr. Black said.
Mr. Black explained: “He’s not going to turn to me and go, ‘Hey, Lewis, I was reading Kierkegaard yesterday, and … ’ That would not come up in our normal conversations. It’s opportunity to discuss stuff that we might discuss after three drinks.”
In 2005, Mr. Carter finished a 151-page draft of what would become “Discord.” “Everybody hated it,” he said. “My wife hated it. My agent hated it. My lawyer hated it.” He filed the script away, then revised it over the next decade with input from people like Garry Shandling, Norman Lear and Arianna Huffington.
The resulting play, running about 50 pages and 90 minutes, made its debut in 2014 at the NoHo Arts Center in Los Angeles. Reviewing that production, The Los Angeles Times called it a “funny and thought-provoking new play” that illuminates “the clashing personalities that drive three discordant takes on Christianity.”
Mr. Maher, the “Real Time” host, is a strident atheist, but he said he appreciated “Discord” for its humor and its thoughtfulness. “We are living in a world of shallow phone culture,” Mr. Maher wrote in an email, “and Scott’s play, and its premise, are the antidote.”
Ms. Senior, who directed a previous production of “Discord,” presented last year at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, Ill., said there was a rollicking comic spirit at the heart of the play, despite its loftier ambitions.
Preparing “Discord” for Primary Stages, she said, has been “a constant conversation about the tone and the comedy in it.”
The ideal version of the play, Ms. Senior said, is “one in which you laugh in the beginning and your pathways are opened up to listen better — then maybe you leave taking account of your own life.”
Likewise the three characters in “Discord,” Ms. Senior said, are “trying, in their own ways, to find out how to live, how to transcend what makes us petty and vulgar and narcissistic.”
Mr. Carter said he continues to attend the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, though he is not an official member and does not call himself a Christian; he said he appreciates the church’s organ and the opportunities for inspiration.
“I find it’s another place where ideas come to me,” he said. “I keep a pen in hand, and that’s my meditation for the day.”
Using material he excised from the original draft of “Discord,” Mr. Carter is already working on a metatextual companion piece, called “Harmony,” in which the characters are three actors playing Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy in a production of “Discord.”
“One of them thinks the other two are phoning it in,” he said, “so he’s asked them to come to the empty theater before an evening performance to berate them.”
Mr. Carter said he was already working on a fourth draft of “Harmony,” and, since his experience on “Discord,” has gotten slightly more efficient at revising his writing. “At that rate I’ll be done in about 40 years,” he said.