There is art, and there is proselytizing. Great art can contain proselytizing — if you doubt me, go to Round House this month — but proselytizing is not art. That, in a nutshell, is the problem that besets The Loser Letters, Jeffrey Fiske’s adaptation of Mary Eberstadt’s novel of the same name, getting a limited run at Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre.
The Loser Letters is the story of A. F. (for a former) Christian (Madeline Cristina Murphy), a fresh convert to the cause of atheism. She addresses the audience — whom she presumes to be her fellow atheists — to warn them about the snares which people of faith (whom she calls “the dulls”) present. There are four of them: that the sexual revolution has ushered in an era of personal pain and regret, particularly for women; that without God, “everything is permitted” (quoting Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov) and thus the most brutal political leaders in world history were atheist; that Christian art is better than atheist art; and that abortion on demand is a slippery slope which ends up in infanticide. Thus The Loser Letters (God is “the Loser”) is a lecture on Christian morality, disguised as an attack on Christian morality, disguised as a play.
While she is lecturing us, Ms. Christian is stalked by an animated gargoyle, played by Chellsie Marie Memmel. The program calls this character “The Shadow”, but Memmel is no Lamont Cranston. Instead, she is an Olympic-class gymnast who uses Steve Craig’s set like a jungle gym. Indeed, seeing Memmel vault from piece to piece, somersaulting, twisting, and wrapping herself up like a human pretzel (the great Irina Tsikurishvili is the choreographer) is worth the price of admission in itself. If only we weren’t distracted by somebody trying to put on a play nearby!
Fiske is the highly successful adapter of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, which has been to Washington a few times and to which The Loser Letters bears a slight resemblance. Screwtape was an elegant, sophisticated, SES-level devil who dictated letters of advice to his silent minion, Toadpipe, who would then take them to Screwtape’s low-level nephew, a junior-grade devil. The subject of the letters was how to tempt an honorable young human man into sin and evil.
But the point of The Screwtape Letters was to show that evil — abhorred by all people of good will, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist or even atheist — manifests itself in surprising ways. For example, Screwtape points out, self-righteousness is evil.
The Loser Letters, on the other hand, radiates self-righteousness from every pore. The clear implication of A.F. Christian’s letters is that atheists are sex-crazed maniacs (and bad artists!) who are prepared to send millions to the gas chamber or the Gulag because there is no God to tell them otherwise in their cosmology. Screwtape would approve.
There are other distinctions, too, and not to the advantage of The Loser Letters. Toadpipe is a silent character who performs acrobatic feats throughout the show. But those feats are always in advancement of the story, and have a beginning and ending. When it’s Screwtape’s turn to talk, Toadpipe is obediently still. The Shadow, on the other hand, is in constant motion, prowling, leaping, turning herself upside down, and so on. Memmel’s extreme athleticism, I must say, is much more engaging than Murphy’s disquisition (more on that later) and thus serves the play no better than, say, some lout talking on his cell phone would.
The Loser Letters
closes October 9, 2016
Details and tickets
Just as important, Screwtape is a credible character and A.F. Christian is not. This may seem surprising, since Screwtape is a creature that does not exist (at least in visible form) and A.F. Christian is a human being, but there you have it. Screwtape is an internally consistent character. He behaves as we have come to believe devils behave. A.F. Christian is a parody of a young contemporary person (she asks, seriously, what the point of opposable thumbs is, if not to text), who quotes from various Christian scholars, theologians, and philosophers and layers their remarks with a kind of Valley Girl babble.
Things are not helped by Murphy, who appears, I’m sad to say, to be sort of a mush-mouth. It is hard to follow deep philosophical arguments when they are delivered by an implausible character while a gargoyle jumps around, but it is impossible if you can’t make out the words (and I was sitting in the third row). Murphy also seemed to be fighting her lines. She has a colossal number of them — this is essentially an eighty-minute monologue, although Nadira Mandy Rivera does come in at the end with a few lines of her own — and I expect she will do better in later productions. I can’t expect her diction to be any better, though.
I should point out that I agree with some, though certainly not all, of Eberstadt’s arguments. But I don’t come to theater to be beaten over the head with arguments, even arguments with which I agree. And I bet you don’t either.
The Loser Letters, adapted and directed by Jeffrey Fiske from the novel The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism by Mary Eberstadt; choreographed by Irina Tsikurisvili. Featuring Madeleine Cristina Murphy, Chellsie Marie Memmel, and Nadira Mandy Rivera . Set design by Steven Craig . Costume design by Emily DeAngelis . Lighting design by Alberto Segarra . Sound design by Francis James . Stage manager Donna Reinhold, assisted by Renee Nyack . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.