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'Screwtape Letters' at the Lansburgh

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C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
C. S. Lewis was one of the important Christian apologists of the last century, although criticism has been chipping away at his reputation. His delightful series of Narnia books for young adults is perhaps the most influential example of this side of his work, but he also wrote a number of works that put a modern spin on many facets of Christianity. One of the most memorable was The Screwtape Letters, a wicked little book presented as a series of letters from a senior devil named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. The more experienced tempter is advising his apprentice on strategies to lead a young man's soul, whom they call the Patient, toward damnation and away from God ("the Enemy"). Lewis's view of the machinery of Hell as a carefully regulated bureaucracy is an ingenious rethinking of Dante's Inferno, with the sorts of sins that can damn a soul not needing to be grand or even particularly vicious, but only a long-term pattern of indifference and selfishness.

The book has been made into a play at least three times (a film version is also reportedly in the works), with the latest example being a 90-minute, essentially one-man adaptation by Jeffrey Fiske, who directed, and Max McLean, who starred in the title role. After a long run at the Lansburgh Theater in 2008, it has returned there for a brief engagement this month, again presented by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts. Those thinking about buying tickets should be aware that the presenting organization at one point described its mission statement thus: "FPA exists to glorify God by presenting the Bible through the performing arts in the marketplace of ideas." If you would resent being proselytized in the theater, this production is not for you. If not, and especially if you enjoyed the book, you would likely be entertained by Max McLean's incarnation of Screwtape, half executive polish and half infernal cruelty, as he dictates his letters to his assistant, Toadpipe, played as a worm-like creature by Beckley Andrews (costumes designed by Michael Bevins).

Other Reviews:

Jane Horwitz, A riveting, charming adaptation of ‘The Screwtape Letters’ (Washington Post, December 24)

Wilborn Hampton, Lewis’s Tempters, Meticulously Paving the Road to Hell (New York Times, June 12, 2010)

Celia Wren, 'Screwtape' Gives The Devil His Due (Washington Post, April 24, 2008)
The adaptation is, it must be said, rather basic. Screwtape mostly dictates the letters, punctuated by Toadpipe, grunting and slurping, carrying them up a twisted letter to a letterbox that glows red as the missives depart and return. Some of the context is updated, with the threat of war -- actually dangerous to the devils' concerns, as Screwtape puts it -- changed from World War II to the conflict of global terrorism, and a clever reference to the materialism of more recent pop stars. The action takes place on a steeply raked platform (scenic design by Cameron Anderson), around which Screwtape and Toadpipe have to stalk and creep. The only scene that does not take place in this well-appointed study is Screwtape's address to the Tempters Training College graduating class, a scene that is adapted from Lewis's addendum to his book, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, published in 1959. You may be better off skipping directly to the most entertaining part of this, which is giving The Screwtape Letters another read.

This production continues at the Lansburgh Theater, through January 6.

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