by Samuel L. Leiter
Plays dabbling in Christian theology may not be everybody’s cup of dramatic tea, but for those whose tastes run in that direction the residency this winter at the Pearl Theatre of a company called the Fellowship for Performing Arts is offering a heady (cerebral, if you wish), though not fully satisfying, brew of such faith-based wares. The FPA’s “simple mission” is “to create theatre from a Christian worldview that can engage a diverse audience.” Their production of The Great Divorce, recently closed, was adapted from a novel by British author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), best known for his children’s fantasy The Chronicles of Narnia, itself imbued with Christian themes.
Now on view is Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean’s 90-minute version (there are others by different writers) of Lewis’s still widely read and much loved, satirical, epistolary novel, The Screwtape Letters, serialized in 1941 and published complete in 1942. The piece—directed by McLean—premiered Off Broadway in 2006, enjoyed a successful run at the Westside Theatre in 2010, and has toured extensively, starring McLean, FPA’s founder and artistic director, who staged this revival.
The play begins with a brief prologue based on Lewis’s 1959 essay, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in which His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape (Brent Harris), a Senior Devil, dressed in a formal, red-jacketed military tunic with gold braid, delivers an after-dinner address of encouragement to a huge assembly of young devils at the Tempters’ Training College. Aiding him is Toadpipe (the role alternates among Karen Eleanor Wight, whom I saw, Marissa Molnar, and Shiloh Goodin), a slithery demon covered head to foot in a black, scaly, reptilian, Caliban-like costume. Speaking in a posh British accent, Screwtape, sly, sardonic, and sarcastic, deplores the quality of the souls on which they’ve just banqueted (no Hitlers among them, unfortunately), but is delighted at their numbers.
The meat of the play is set in Screwtape’s hellish office (the back wall shows countless skulls and bones, an idea borrowed perhaps from Orson Welles’s 1938 production of Danton’s Death). Screwtape is responsible for guiding the unseen Junior Tempter, Wormwood, in his earthly mission of tempting away from God to eternal damnation a man referred to as the Patient, whose soul will provide Wormwood plenty on which to feast. Missives—transcribed by the silent (apart from eerie vocalizations) Toadpipe—between Screwtape and Wormwood (31 in the original book) are sent via a pneumatic tube-like contraption reached by a twisty ladder.
Screwtape, referring to God as “the Enemy” and the Devil as “Our Father Below,” subverts Christian morality in his admonitions to the increasingly unsuccessful Wormwood, who finds it impossible to prevent the Patient from converting to Christianity, or to engage in various forms of depravity. As a result, Screwtape’s frustrations grow exponentially. As the letters subversively illustrate good Christian behavior by emphasizing its opposite, Screwtape touches on topics like sex, gluttony, war, pride, and love, a word delivered with cutting distaste. When he utters the word “prayer,” Toadpipe instantly barfs, providing the evening’s biggest laugh. Many moments force us to contemplate the relationship between Screwtape’s advice and figures and events in our contemporary landscape.
A stylish (if conventionally “devilish”) performance by Harris (think Jeremy Irons at his showiest), highly expressive pantomime from Wight, imaginative staging, striking lighting by Jesse Klug, an unusual soundscape by John Gromada, and a chilling set by Cameron Anderson do all they can to bring this talky play to life. Much of it is intriguing, provocative, and, to many (if not to me), laugh-worthy, but once its sermonizing point is made some may find that going from one letter to another, with only a single voice, tends toward dramaturgic stasis.
Before The Screwtape Letters began, the man next to me asked if I’d seen it before. When I said no, he replied he’d seen it in 2010 and was returning so he could introduce it to his daughter. When it ended, neither I nor my own daughter, who accompanied me, had much interest in seeing it again. True, apart from damned souls, there’s much to chew on here, but members of the choir are sure to receive this in a somewhat different spirit than those of other faiths (or the lack thereof).
The Screwtape Letters
FPA at the Pearl Theatre
555 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through January 24
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).