The setup: To paraphrase that famous commercial for Levy's Jewish Rye Bread, you don't have to be Christian to like this dramatization of C.S. Lewis's ironic apologia to faith. Anyone can understand the battle between good and evil, and what it means to be a decent person, whatever one's beliefs, whatever one's religion.
The execution: One of the reigning popular Christian writers (The Space Trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Great Divorce), as well as the pre-eminent medieval scholar of his generation, C.S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters (1942) in response to one of Hitler's oily tirades on the eve of the Battle of Britain. Hitler's false pride, layered with obvious lies, had a profound effect on moral Lewis, an unabashed Christian ever since his conversion when he was 32 years old.
Consisting of 31 letters, Lewis's short novel is written by Screwtape (Max McLean), a major demon in hell, to his demon-in-training nephew on earth, Wormwood, whose job is to tempt a normal person and send him to hell. The letters lay out basic Christian principles and values, although turned on their head since they're penned from the opposite viewpoint, as "His Abysmal Sublimity" explains to Wormwood what fools these Christians are and how easy it is to lead them astray. There's warm humor and tongue-in-cheek parody in the novel, as well as bedrock morality and a sense of humanity's goodness, no matter its obvious faults.
Adapted by McLean and co-director Jeffrey Fiske for the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, a theater company formed "to produce compelling theater from a Christian worldview," Screwtape is visually exciting theater that adds spice to what is essentially a staged sermon, albeit a highly entertaining one. McLean, who's been playing this crafty old devil for years and has recently been touring the United States with this current production since January, imbues the wily fiend with an urbane charm and joyous exasperation that would play beautifully in Noël Coward.
Using his resonant baritone with a pro's panache, McLean croons with seduction, whispers to us in conspiracy, wails with despondency, as he exhorts his wayward nephew onward to his hellish deeds. In his harangues, Screwtape discourses wittily on marriage, mothers, the power of prayer, churchgoing, the evils of war, pop culture, the courage of ordinary blokes and the ease that most people possess to do nothing, which clearly leads one downward fast. Lewis hits every Christian high point, and forcefully debates them with intelligence, wit and clarity. It's like listening to Shaw, only from the opposite side, and McLean opens our ears to our evident errors. But don't think for a moment that if you're not a mass murderer or child molester that the path to Heaven lies open. In a chilling short sequence, McLean, lit from below like in a horror movie, portrays a recently damned arrival. "I spent all my life not doing what I ought," he cries, "or what I liked." It's the small sins that'll hurl you into the fiery pit, Lewis posits with evocative simplicity; it's on the gentle slope when you don't even realize you're sliding.
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Accompanying Screwtape on stage is his reptilian secretary Toadpipe (Beckley Andrews, alternating with Tamala Bakkensen in the role), who physically writes the letters that Screwtape orates. Toadpipe has no dialogue, but it's a physical role, as Andrews scampers on all fours across the stage, nimbly climbs the ladder to the pneumatic mailbox, drapes herself appealingly over the lectern while Screwtape discourses on the changing face of woman, or grunts and clicks with unearthly approval or disapproval on what she has to write. Michael Bevins's scaled costume and vivid makeup for this devilkin -- unlike the proper Edwardian dean look for Screwtape -- say Disney more than Doré, which isn't very scary, and a little of Toadpipe's underworld antics go a long way.
The physical production is a beauty -- with its clever background wall of bones and skulls by Cameron Anderson, ever-changing pin-spot lighting (a lot of red, naturally) by Jesse Klug, and atmospheric sound design and original music by John Gromada. Everything serves Lewis's particularly devilish take.
The verdict: Screwtape makes you think seriously about how you're living your life, but going to hell couldn't be more fun.
C.S. Lewis gets lively, theatrical respect in this staged adaptation that has two more performances, Saturday, August 11, at 4 p.m and 8 p.m., in the Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, 501 Texas. Order tickets online at screwtapeonstage.com or call 713-222-5400. $45-$95.