Although his “Narnia” chronicles have found a massive secular audience, C.S. Lewis also wrote fiction expressly for the Christian crowd. Most notable is “The Screwtape Letters,” an epistolary novel about a demon giving lessons to a devil-in-training on how to steal a human soul from God (or “the Enemy,” as Screwtape calls him). Playwrights Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean have adapted this parable of Christian virtue for the stage, courting a devout audience while the more shakily faithful stick to “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
For those undeterred by its dogmatic message, the show does offer some dramatic satisfaction. As Screwtape (McLean) dictates letters to Toadpipe (Jenny Savage), his hellish amanuensis, it’s obvious the writers have retained the better part of Lewis’ wit. Screwtape’s missives describe an entire community of evil, complete with a “tempters’ training college” and a bureaucratic pecking order of disgruntled workers.
With his rich, grumbling baritone, McLean turns lengthy monologues into rich arguments for wickedness. He shapes Lewis’ words — little has been added to the original text — into powerful sermons, controlling his volume and tone as well as any firebrand preacher. He even finds countless ways of saying, “Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape,” a salutation that closes the letters with increasing irony as the novice devil loses his battle for the human’s soul.
But McLean’s perf would be equally effective if he were just reading from the book. It’s all the other elements of this production — the ones added by the creative team — that lead it awry.
“Screwtape’s” is hardly an active text, since we never see the young devil enacting his master’s advice. Fiske, who also directs, thus attempts to add movement to the talky script by sending his actors on regular jaunts around the stage. But not only are the crosses and exits random, they also defy the play’s logic.
Toadpipe, for instance, leaves her desk several times to mix her boss a drink or fetch his robe, but Screwtape goes right on speaking. There’s no explanation for why he would keep dictating letters with no one there to copy them.
But that confusion pales next to the lunacy thrust on poor Savage. To provide breaks between Screwtape’s letters, Fiske sends her center stage for bouts of modern dance (no, really).
Bathed in red light and backed by “demonic” techno music, Savage high-kicks one leg or bends down to slap the floor. At the end of each number, she makes the same smirky expression — possibly to confess that it’s nonsense — and returns to transcribe the next monologue.
While they may make the production more “theatrical,” these bits certainly don’t add to Lewis’ words. Nor does Scott Aronow’s muddled set, which mixes old-style sitting-room furniture with white walls cut at sharp angles. The backdrops occasionally get blasted with colored light, but that doesn’t make them mean anything. They just add to the weight that keeps this high-minded production so hopelessly earthbound.