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C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters

Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske’s adaptation of the C.S, Lewis novel set in Hell returns for the third time in this solo play with Brent Harris in the title role.

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Brent Harris in a scene from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letter (Photo courtesy of Fellowship for Performing Arts)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

Some novels are more stage-worthy than others, and C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is not among those that are. As adapted for the stage by Max McLean–who also directs the production with a flair for the grotesque–and Jeffrey Fiske, C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is an unfortunate jumble of gibberish and gobbledygook, told at breakneck speed by Brent Harris, who is playing His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape.

Set in the “Tempters’ Training College for young devils in Hell,” the play begins with Screwtape (aka Satan) standing at a podium, addressing, “Mr. Principal, your Imminence, your Disgraces, my Thorns, Shadies and Gentledevils.” At his feet is Toadpipe (Tamala Bakkensen), described in the script as Screwtape’s Secretary and a demonic creature.

With her red-flecked costume and frizzy hair, Toadpipe grunts and hisses throughout the performance. She also regularly climbs up a black, crooked ladder stage right to send Screwtape’s letters to his nephew, Wormwood, the contents of which comprise Screwtape’s virtual monologue.

Brent Harris in a scene from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letter (Photo courtesy of Fellowship for Performing Arts)

It’s all played out on a handsomely designed set by Cameron Anderson, featuring–in addition to that black ladder–a rear wall composed of seemingly endless bones and tiny skulls and a red wing-backed leather chair, upon which Screwtape sits as he recites his letters to Wormwood. There are, of course, many references to God, who is named “the Enemy,” as well as a good many adages, such as “a moderated religion is as good as no religion at all–and more amusing,” and “We know that the Enemy cannot really love: nobody can.”

If Lewis succeeded with anything in his novel, it was the naming of his characters. In addition to Screwtape, Toadpipe and Wormwood, there’s the principal’s name: Mr. Slubgob. Lewis also, in an author’s note that appears in the program, says that “readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar” and that “there is wishful thinking in Hell as well as on Earth.”

Though there isn’t much to hope for in the stage version, Bakkensen excels as Toadpipe–if only she had lines to say in addition to her grunts and guttural sounds. And Michael Bevins’ costume designs prove extremely inventive.

C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (through December 30, 2018)

Fellowship for Performing Arts

Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-947-8844 or visit http://www.fpatheatre.com

Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission

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David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (106 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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