Welcome to the “Lowerarchy”. Screwtape is a highly placed (or rather hellishly lowly placed) official in the vast administration of “Our Father Below”, i.e. The Devil, in this wickedly amusing adaptation of the C. S. Lewis novel. He is an exuberantly dressed, hyper-Edwardian executive, dictating fraught, instructive memos to his scribe, Toadpipe. As the aristocratic Screwtape, Harris displays endless vocal variety, keeping us dazzled and engaged for ninety minutes, as he spells out plans and revels in the joys of deviltry. Harris has previously played Iago, Scar in a national tour of the Lion King and probably every effete, super-intelligent villain other than Severus Snape. His bearing and precise baritone rumbles are spellbinding, and he knows it. We are in capable hands.
Screwtape’s task is to successfully guide a new graduate Tempter, Wormwood, via this correspondence. Wormwood has been assigned a “Patient” to lure away from “The Enemy”-– G-d—in order to secure the Patient’s crunchy, mildly tasty soul for the legions below or, failing to do so, to stand in his place. The play’s drollery lies in all the topsy-turvy language and in the fact that this Patient being discussed in the letters is clearly just an ordinary middle-class human, oblivious to the war being waged for his soul every single moment—when he indulges in inanities with colleagues over cocktails, takes a stroll, or lets his mind wander from a task. (Many insightful lessons are tucked therein.)
What a challenge, to take a character dictating letters and make it a captivating theatrical spectacle. Kudos to the entire technical team: Cameron Anderson (Stage Design), Michael Bevins (Costume Design), Jesse King (Lighting Design), and John Gromada (Sound Design). They transport us to a darkly skewed FAR DOWNton Abbey (sorry) with an endless subterranean wall of human remains and a twisted ladder up to a cosmodemonic letter box. It is a world that shakes, rumbles, and sputters, with shafts of light breaking through artfully in myriad unexpected moments. Each sealing of a Screwtape missive is accompanied by a sizzling bit of audio lava.
The scribe Toadpipe–a mute, lizardy, Dr. Seussy, sort of Luciferian Anger Translator– was played to a slithery tee by Marisa Molnar last night. She brilliantly mimes eternal servility, embodying human types when called upon to illustrate Screwtape’s points. She seems to be made of a responsive jelly—covered with scales and feathers.
I must say my heart sank when I read just before curtain that “Fellowship for Performing Arts produces theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience.” (Apparently they never saw Spamalot in which we learned “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.”) I expected then a preachy bore, not this deliciously witty, theatrical treat that still resonates and amuses the day after. I hope it will not be a stain on my objective journalistic soul to confess that I stood at the ovation for Brent Harris.
The Screwtape Letters.is part of FPA’s Lewis trilogy that began with The Great Divorce (reviewed here), and culminates with C. S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert (February 18-21). Lewis adapter McLean himself stars. I expect that, like the first two, it will be entertaining, very well staged, canny, and imbued with serious Christian thought and an earnest invitation to introspection.
- Adapted by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean
- Directed by Max McLean
- Produced by Fellowship for Performing Arts
- Cast includes Brent Harris and (alternating) Karen Eleanor Wight, Marisa Molnar, and Shiloh Goodin
- The Pearl Theatre, New York
- Until 24 January 2016
- Review by Paul Meltzer
- 9 January 2016