Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Off Broadway: The Screwtape Letters

In The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, adapted by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean and now playing at the Westside Theatre at 407 West 43rd Street in Manhattan, Max McLean does an extraordinary job in the lead role as one of Satan's senior devils, His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape. Karen Eleanor Wight also does a splendid job slithering, strutting, and hissing her way about the stage in her role as Toadpipe, Screwtape's personal secretary. The set was intelligently and creatively designed by Cameron Anderson. And at times, C.S. Lewis' language is not only eloquent, but even poetic.

Having said all that, however, this play vastly disappointed me on two levels: first, because it is not really a play at all but rather a Christian apologia consisting of several long soliloquies by Mr. McLean, interrupted intermittently by Ms Wight's sounds and gyrations. There is little dramatic interaction and it comes off as a theatrical exercise (well done, to be sure, but still just an exercise) rather than a fully developed play.

I guess I really should not have been surprised by that: the show was, after all, produced by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, a non-profit organization whose avowed purpose is to "produce theatre from a Christian worldview" and Mr. McLean does list among his credits his recordings of The Bible in three translations, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Martin Luther's Here I Stand, St. Augustine's Conversion, and Jonathan Edwards' Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. And that is what this production came off as to me: as more of a performance of another Christian polemic rather than a theatrical event.

But the second reason that the play disappointed me did come as a great surprise. Here I refer to the fact that I found the substance of the play itself, what Mr. Lewis actually had to say, rather superficial, glib and sophomoric. From a man described in the program as "one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century and arguably the most influential Christian writer of his day" I really expected much more.

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