'Screwtape' Gives The Devil His Due

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 24, 2008

That smoldering scent wafting along Penn Quarter is not exhaust that's drifted over from traffic on Interstate 395. It's a whiff of infernal brimstone, courtesy of "The Screwtape Letters," the diverting, talky, handsomely produced dramatization of C.S. Lewis's book now running at the Lansburgh Theatre.

Dominated by actor Max McLean as the eponymous demon, who'd pass muster in any Oxford University faculty lounge, the 90-minute show stays fundamentally true to Lewis's vision of Hell as a cutthroat bureaucracy. But Jeffrey Fiske, who directs the piece -- mounted by the New Jersey-based Fellowship for the Performing Arts, which creates theater from a Christian worldview -- prudently adds a few Dantesque touches, too.

First published during World War II, "The Screwtape Letters" purports to be a senior devil's advice to a younger tempter. Sometimes patiently, sometimes with withering condescension, the veteran fiend Screwtape counsels his bungling nephew Wormwood on how to induce solipsism, materialism, peevishness and other mindsets likely to earn a mortal, in the long run, eternal damnation.

The conceit of the stage version, as adapted by Fiske and McLean (this play premiered in New York in 2006), is that Screwtape is dictating his letters to his secretary, Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight). The duo's office bivouacs on a narrow, receding platform, suspended in blackness. Behind a cluttered desk and comfy armchair, a ladder with a curiously serpentine shape -- as if half melted by hellfire -- stretches upward. Smoke eddies in sinister fashion around this surreal workspace, and at one point, the lurid lighting reveals that the seemingly black backdrop is, in fact, studded with skulls. (Cameron Anderson is scenic designer and Tyler Micoleau the lighting designer.)

Professorially dressed in a gold-and-claret smoking jacket and gray pinstripe trousers (Michael Bevins devised the costumes), Screwtape swaggers and lounges around this domain. Sometimes he paces in irritation, biting off his words with disdain; sometimes he flings his arms about, snarling and bellowing as he gets carried away by his own Mephistophelean passions. McLean's plummy voice and haughty Earl-Grey-and-crumpets diction suit the character and complement Lewis's text, with its sly insights into human foibles and its funny but pointed inventions about satanic logistics. (In a brief prologue, set at a graduation banquet at the Tempters' Training College for Young Devils, Screwtape carps about the "lukewarm casserole of adulterers" that has just been served.)

The presence of Toadpipe, a mute, spindly, simian creature who looks like a mummy with a red cockscomb, helps to flesh out the diabolic world. (Occasionally, Toadpipe caricatures third parties whom Screwtape mentions in his letters -- a pious young lady who's giving Wormwood trouble, for instance.) But Wight does a little too much mugging as her character scuttles about, listening rapturously to her boss's ranting, or clambering up the ladder to slot his missives into a dangling interoffice mailbox.

Toadpipe periodically gnaws on a huge bone, and indeed it's the sound of slobbering bone-gnawing that kicks off the production, in the first of designer Bart Fasbender's hugely effective sound cues -- eerie musical underscoring, booming echoes as of forced marches through subterranean corridors, and so on. Such touches help maximize the admittedly modest dramatic potential of Screwtape's pontifications.

Best known for writing the children's series "The Chronicles of Narnia," Lewis also penned books that more directly expounded his Christian faith. "Screwtape" is one of these, and audience members interested in spiritual reflection will certainly find food for thought -- and mortification -- in this dramatization. But the fiendish reality the production conjures is colorful enough to appeal to theatergoers of any, or no, religious persuasion. The Devil is an equal-opportunity entertainer.

The Screwtape Letters, based on the book by C.S. Lewis, adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean. Directed by Fiske. About 90 minutes. Through May 18 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or 877-487-8849 or visit http://www.screwtapeonstage.com.

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