Max McLean cuts an impressive figure as His Abysmal Sublimity, Screwtape, one of the Devil’s own. He crows about the spiritual and moral failings of us “hairless bipeds,” whom the “Enemy” (i.e. God) seems to love so much, and how easy it is to collect our souls for Satan — especially those of film and pop music stars.
Setting Screwtape’s dubious occupation aside, McLean’s portrayal can’t help but charm an audience. His well-traveled stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s 1941 novel, “The Screwtape Letters,” at the Lansburgh Theatre through Jan. 6, clearly delights people of faith, including a guest of this reviewer, and all lovers of Lewis’s spiritual writings. Even skeptics and followers of non-Christian faiths can relish his critique of Western man, channeled through McLean’s acidic and quizzical interpretation.
Yet McLean’s acting cannot fully divert an audience from the repetitive nature of the 90-minute piece, as Screwtape dictates letter after letter. With his co-adaptor and co-director Jeffrey Fiske, McLean has invented ways to add theatricality and diversion to the evening, and they largely work — until they, too, become repetitive. Key among these is the presence of another figure alongside McLean — Screwtape’s assistant Toadpipe (played on opening night by Tamala Bakkensen; she alternates in the role with Beckley Andrews).
Encased from head to toe in a scaly, feathery unitard, the twitching, genderless Toadpipe takes down Screwtape’s dictation by hand and by foot, growling wordlessly in a voice like the one Mercedes McCambridge used as the “Exorcist” demon. With each new letter, the creature climbs a twisted ladder and stuffs the paper into a pneumatic tube that glows red when it “sends.” Toadpipe provides a welcome counterpoint to Screwtape’s verbosity. And just when you think you don’t want to see Toadpipe go through the process of sending yet another letter or hear Screwtape signing off again as “Your affectionate uncle, Scrrrrewwwwtape,” popping the “p” like a champagne cork, the old goat loses his temper and all bets are off.
The show opens with a brief prologue. Standing at a podium, Screwtape salutes new graduates at the “Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils,” apologizing for the skimpy banquet of damned souls. Then the action shifts to him at work in his lair.
McLean looks like an English gent ready for a quiet evening with a book and a brandy. He wears a brocade jacket, leather vest and cutaway coat, his gray chin-length mane plastered behind his ears, his goatee neatly clipped to frame a sneer. A large wall of human skulls and bones, neatly arranged in rows and occasionally glowing red, sets the larger scene behind him.
He dictates letters of advice to his unseen nephew Wormwood, a “junior tempter” who is trying to steer a teetering Englishman away from Christianity and back to the life of a materialistic creep. Screwtape warns Wormwood that he mustn’t allow the “patient” to think too much. Ideas about the goodness, selflessness and eternity might waft into his mind. “Keep him out of the way of experienced Christians — an easy job nowadays,” he adds. Later, Screwtape cautions Wormwood not to allow his target to fall in love with a Christian woman, because then “it would be quite impossible to remove spirituality from his life.” And don’t celebrate the new world war so much, he notes — sometimes people act selflessly in battle.
It is Screwtape’s puzzlement over the nature of the Deity that lends the show its riveting nub. C.S. Lewis — and his interpreter, McLean — try to view humanity through the Devil’s lens, and then they try to see how the Devil views God. Screwtape finally admits that he doesn’t understand how the Enemy, God, thinks. Even to nonbelievers, that boils down to a mystery about good and evil.
And McLean & Co. make it an entertaining conundrum to ponder.
adapted from C.S.Lewis’s novel and co-directed by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean. Scenic design, Cameron Anderson; costumes, Michael Bevins; lighting, Jesse Klug; music and sound, John Gromada. Ninety minutes. Presented by Fellowship for the Performing Arts through Jan. 6 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. During the final week, Jan. 2 - 6, Brent Harris will take over for Max McLean as Screwtape and Marissa Molnar will alternate with Bakkensen as Toadpipe. Visit www.screwtapeonstage.com or call 202-547-1122.