From the opening moment – as His Abysmal Sublimity, Screwtape, proposes a toast at the Annual Dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for young devils – our fears are set aside and we realize how nice it is to see this particular devil back in full raging form, and that there is nothing out-dated or quaint about him; the passage of time has diluted neither his virulence nor his relevance.
Recall that this is a play set in Hell and concerns a senior devil – Screwtape – writing letters to his nephew, an apprentice tempter whom he guides in his attempts to lure a mortal towards eternal damnation. One false move in terms of tone, and the play would fail, but, thankfully, Max McLean as Screwtape hits all the right notes. (The set design, bringing to mind a Lovecraftian ossuary designed by H.R. Giger, contributes greatly to the play’s success as well).
As Screwtape, McLean is appropriately sardonic and world-weary (or would that be Hell-weary?). Droll and eloquent, he is at times languid and self-satisfied, like a sated predator; when excited, McLean uses his stentorian voice to great effect (one can’t help but to compare him to the great British actor Brian Blessed, he of the deep, booming voice and stately carriage, crossed with the sly mischief of Rip Torn), especially during one of his vitriolic, red-faced rants. It is during these volcanic, rambuctious, half-screamed, all-proselytizing effusions that we realize we are in the presence of a riveting, charismatic form of evil — the very worst kind, but also the most entertaining. Thus McLean captures the essence of what makes Lewis’ novella (first published in 1942) so effective: due to his silver tongue, Screwtape enthralls us, and we overlook the fact that Lewis is speaking directly to us, without preaching and without judgment. It is through Screwtape and his correspondence that Lewis urges us to take our Faith seriously, and to take seriously all that might undermine our Faith and our Hope – a rallying cry during the darkness of World War II, and no less potent a cry today during these grim and troubled times, as all times tend to be.
In all, seventy minutes of wonderful, timely, refreshing, and unsettling theatre, upstairs at the Westside Theatre, thanks to the Fellowship for the Performing Arts — and to Jack, who still does not disappoint.
One of CS Lewis’ most influential works, The Screwtape Letters, has been adapted into a critically acclaimed theater production. After completing a successful national tour selling out theaters in major cities such as Chicago and Washington DC, the play opened Off-Broadway in April and tickets are currently on sale through September 5.
If you’re in the New York area don’t miss this opportunity to see one of the great works brought to life on stage. For tickets and more information visit the website at www.screwtapeonstage.com.