An Infernally Good Time

For fans of the works of the great C. S. Lewis, or for anyone who can appreciate a good bit of religion-based comedy, this latest adaptation of “The Screwtape Letters” is a hit. The play is devilishly funny, and the actors really bring Lewis’ classic to life.

I watched the performance on Thursday, July 21 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. The theatre was packed, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the show. The play itself isn’t very long; it clocks in at just over eighty minutes, and that’s not counting the extra 20 minutes for a brief and optional Q-and-A session with the actor who plays Screwtape himself.

The action revolves around senior demon Screwtape’s instructions to his nephew and junior “tempter” Wormwood (spoken aloud and dictated to his secretary, Toadpipe) in the ways of spiritual warfare and the weaknesses of mankind. He is specifically advising Wormwood (who never actually appears on-stage) as to the best ways to damn the soul of a human man referred to only as “the Patient.” In order to ensure the Patient’s damnation and to send his soul to the depths of Hell so it may be feasted upon by himself and his fellow demons, Screwtape does his best to impart his considerable knowledge of temptation and human nature to his nephew.

However, Wormwood is far from being a professional tempter, and he experiences several setbacks which he relates to his uncle through writing throughout the course of the play. One of these occurs when the Patient starts going regularly to church, and after Screwtape berates his nephew for letting such a thing occur, he tries to help him turn the situation to their favor.

What follows is a hilarious yet sobering view of the Church through the eyes of a servant of Satan, spoken with such clear insight and biting irony that God-fearing people watching the performance couldn’t help but turn their gazes inward, examining their own lives in the hopes that they don’t fit Screwtape’s descriptions of “unwitting tools for the work of Our Father Below.”

While the one-sided dialogue takes a little getting used to, the play soon sweeps you up into the grand experience of a truly imaginative and original tale, tickling your funnybone while presenting you with some real food for thought.

The lead role is expertly brought to life by master actor Max McLean, while the role of Toadpipe is alternatively played by a trio of actresses: Tamala Bakkensen, Beckley Andrews and Karen Wight.

The play takes place mostly in Screwtape’s infernal “Office in Hell,” and the dialogue consists primarily of a series of correspondences between Screwtape and Wormwood. While the epistolary style of the production took a little getting used to, I was quickly drawn in by the raw humor and the ironic clarity of Screwtape’s vision of mankind and the spiritual battles surrounding him.

Despite the play’s taking place mostly in one room, clever use of scenery and costumes ensure that the experience never gets stale. The set designers have constructed a unique and visually intriguing set that does an excellent job of preventing any feeling of déjà vu on the part of the audience, and this is complemented by McLean’s masterful delivery. The actor has voiced the audio recordings of such books as John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and the Bible itself (in three translations, no less), and he is perfectly suited to the role of a passionate advocate for and instructor of spiritual warfare, even if his character isn’t on the side we would usually root for.

The entire production was great fun from start to finish. The music played during the seating period featured fun classics from AC/DC and The Who, and the sound effects used during the play (like the din of a banquet hall full of demons cheering) were easily heard without being too loud. The costumes were fantastic, especially the scaly hide donned by Toadpipe actress Beckley Andrews. Both McLean and Andrews played their roles as if they were born for them, with one as the gifted orator and the other as the wild, slobbering demonic servant, respectively. As a whole, it was a very enjoyable experience, providing a unique and thought-provoking drama that continued to enchant even after the two thespians had taken their final bows.

During the Q-and-A session after the play, McLean revealed that he is a strong Christian, and he believes that taking on the role of Screwtape has opened his eyes to his own follies and served to strengthen his faith without hindering it in the slightest. He talked for a short while about the great success that the play has had so far, with more than 300 performances in New York alone.

“The Screwtape Letters” is a wickedly good show and an infernally good time; it’s one hell of a show.

Rating: 4.5/5