Despite theater’s origins in religious ritual, dramatists for the most part these days present religion as a foil for criticism or mockery .. That’s especially true in regards to Christianity, the choice faith of the Western world, with 2 billion adherents strong.
When the eponymous demon himself, actor Max McLean, the driving force behind the adaptation of The Screwtape Letters for the stage, was asked after the show where one could find other theater works from a Christian worldview, the otherwise loquacious Screwtape had trouble naming anything other than the projected works from his own Fellowship for the Performing Arts organization, which presents Christian theater.
That being said, if one was looking to the Christian literary past for something bold, witty, exploratory and intellectual, the work of C.S. Lewis is choice. Revered by Christians as an intellectual battleship and begrudgingly accepted by nonbelievers for his wit and the popularity of his “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Lewis arrives with that highly valued prize of political power already baked in—positive name recognition.
In Lewis’ wicked, epistolary satire The Screwtape Letters, first published in book form in 1942, the senior demon Screwtape counsels his nephew Wormwood, a junior devil, on leading a mortal soul referred to as “The Patient” down the lugubrious path to eternal damnation and away from “the Enemy” (God).
It is revealed in Lewis’ view of Hell as bustling bureaucracy that there is much strategy underscoring the Cold War between good and evil; for instance Screwtape’s dictum that the undermining of faith and promotion of sin need not be writ large, but that a lifetime of indifference, selfishness and pride will do the trick. The safest road to hell, Screwtape advises with sly aplomb, is the gradual slope.
As you may have surmised, The Screwtape Letters is an inverted allegory. By listening in on the devil’s correspondence, we receive a primer on Christian values. Yes, you are being preached to—and should know that going in—but that violation could be forgiven due to the beautifully rich language and ideas of the source material.
The problem with the piece, performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, is that what is brilliant satire on the page suffers from the conceit of being staged as an extended monologue in which McLean, as Screwtape, dictates his side of the conversation to his reptilian secretary Toadpipe. The show veers from being anti-theatrical at its core, which I imagine some will find boring, to wild, gaudy flourishes undermining the production’s aim to be taken seriously.
Satan has enjoyed muscularly boffo roles in works of art since the publication of “Paradise Lost,” and his malevolent eminence is not neglected here. McLean, who originated the role, takes great pleasure in delivering Screwtape’s Mephistophelean arguments in a grandly florid style.
Subtlety be damned, McLean—dressed in a red and gold brocade smoking jacket and looking every bit a satanic snake-oil salesman—alternately lounging and pacing around his corner office in Hell, lets it rip, wildly gesticulating, over-annunciating and generally delivering a broad, exaggerated performance.
Through a series of letters to his neophyte nephew, Screwtape waxes philosophic about the human condition, imparts various strategies on temptation and heaps resentment at that unknowable being (God) that he can’t make sense of. He channels Lewis in exploring what will come to be known as one of the Nazi era’s legacies: that you can do as much harm by inaction, as by active malice.
The script takes on the church, too, as Screwtape refers to it as one of evil’s biggest assists. These thought-provoking nuggets, however, come and go as if in mid-dissertation and without any corresponding dramatic play. When the show does try to inject comic relief (Toadpipe prancing down the catwalk, allusions to pop stars) the humor is cliché and flat.
McLean initially plays Screwtape as a pompous windbag, who as the play progresses and it looks as if The Patient may slip his grasp, becomes more and more disheveled and menacing. It is during these later volcanic effusions that I thought McLean hit his mark, portraying the evil essence virulent behind charisma’s polished gape.
The Screwtape Letters
Closes January 6, 2013
450 7th Street NW a
1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $39 – $89
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Marissa Molnar, in her first performance as the demon master’s wordless scribe Toadpipe, is—as is said in theater criticism—a revelation. Molnar slithers and climbs, shrieks and mumbles. Whether perched or supine, in the forefront or a background piece, she consistently and artfully plays off the main action. Her guttural, physical performance is a welcome antidote to McLean’s droll lecture.
The playfully macabre set design, by Cameron Anderson, brings to mind an ossuary designed by H.R. Giger, with one wall out of the Parisian catacombs, a mailbox tethered in midair and a ladder winding its way Edward Gorey-like to the world above.
John Gromada’s eerie sound design and musical cues are also effective, helping counterbalance the lack of actual dramatic action.
As dazzling and clever as Lewis’ source material is, The Screwtape Letters is essentially a sermon, more intellectual exercise than theater, and I fear that only the audience already in accordance with the message will find it satisfying.
The Screwtape Letters. Adapted and directed for the stage by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean. Starring Max McLean and Marissa Molnar. Scenic design by Cameron Anderson. Costume design by Michael Bevins. Lighting design by Jesse Klug. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Produced by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.