Hell itself ascended upon the Westside Theatre on 34th Street off-Broadway in the form of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters.” This 90-minute one-act production is the first of its kind, as the story has never been staged before.
Lewis, who is perhaps best known for having penned the popular “Chronicles of Narnia” book series, authored several religious-themed works, such as the epistolary meditation “The Screwtape Letters.”
What Lewis wrote, director and performer Max McLean has transformed into a spectacular moral study that makes the shift effortlessly onto the stage. He and his team have edited the book, which, if spoken, would last six hours, into 90 minutes of powerful theater.
McLean plays the title character, Screwtape, a high-ranking demon from Hell. The one-man-show opens with Screwtape addressing the unseen demon graduates of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils. His speech is oddly inspirational as he urges the devils to carry out their duty of tempting mortals to sin, lest they be brought back to Hell for punishment.
Screwtape then retires to his office for the duration of the play with his assistant, the grotesque mute gargoyle, Toadpipe (Beckley Andrews). McLean brings Screwtape to life not with cruelty or rage, but with the respectability of a gentleman. He settles into a leather-bound chair wearing a posh smoking jacket, and begins a cordial correspondence with his nephew Wormwood, who has just graduated from the College. The majority of the play is made up of Screwtape reading Wormwood’s letters aloud and dictating his responses to Toadpipe.
McLean’s production of “The Screwtape Letters” could be taken at face value, and seen as a doting uncle relaying advice, albeit evil, to his nephew. One could also see the moral lessons that lie within the story. As Screwtape instructs Wormwood on how to properly lead the human he has been assigned closer to Hell, he provides the antithesis to the Christian values Lewis held so dear, and therefore an interesting moral lesson in right and wrong.
One powerful moment in the play comes when Screwtape admonishes Wormwood for allowing his man to partake in honest pleasures such as reading a good book or taking a walk.
“The enemy,” Screwtape says, referring to God, “made pleasures; it is our job to encourage [humans] to use pleasures in bad ways.”
Screwtape imparts many more of the lessons of Hell upon Wormwood throughout the show, but his lectures are not dull, McLean keeps the audience in rapturous attention with his visceral connection to the part. The play has been modernized for today’s audiences as well: while Screwtape talks of materialism, he reads from an entertainment magazine and listens to Madonna’s “Material Girl.”
The set is elaborate without taking the focus away from McLean. It consists of Screwtape’s desk and chair, a backdrop of skulls and bones, and an inbox that signals instant letters from Wormwood.
McLean invites the audience to stay after the show for a discussion with him on the play and the audience’s reaction to it.
“I don’t want to leave anyone confused; I’m not really Screwtape,” he said after the show, once out of character. “I have to confess, I’m actually a double agent: I work for the enemy.”
McLean’s powerful and sometimes frightening character commands the show, and his work is outstanding, considering the fact he talks for almost 90 minutes. A viewer who can take the heat of a one-man play will enjoy this show immensely.
Standard tickets for this show are $75, but group deals and discounts can be found at the production’s website, www.screwtapeonstage.com/nyc.
Erin Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.