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September 1st, 2010
12:33 PM ET

'Screwtape Letters' takes stage in New York: review and interview

Editor's note: CNN's Kristen Hamill filed this report about a new off-Broadway production of "The Screwtape Letters," the C.S. Lewis novel about a two devils who pen letters back and forth about tormenting and tempting Christians.

I spoke recently with actor Max McLean after taking in a performance of "The Screwtape Letters," an off-Broadway production staged by his Fellowship for the Performing Arts.

Sporting his character’s slicked-back salt and pepper hair, now matted with perspiration, McLean tells me that adapting an iconic piece of work from one of literature's most famous Christian writers, C.S. Lewis, was a “long process.”

“Lewis never intended it to be a theatrical adaptation,” says McLean, who wrote and directed the play with the Fellowship for the Performing Arts’ artistic director, Jeffrey Fiske. “He wrote it as a meditation on the banality of evil and how seductive it is and how corrupting it is.”

McLean's production excels at depicting that seduction and corruption.

From the skull and bones set that adorns Screwtape’s office in hell to the rich darkness of the lighting and opulent costumes of Screwtape and his personal secretary, Toadpipe,  the audience’s 90 minutes is spent — humorously but at times uncomfortably — being wooed by the underworld’s top salesman.

Screwtape and Toadpipe in the office

Lessons I didn't notice when reading the book jumped out at me during the performance: How a religious person’s life is being constantly tested by the seduction of evil, particularly during trying times.

How Toadpipe (played without any spoken lines but with physical mastery by Australian actress Elise Girardin), embodies the various flaws of human behavior Screwtape so voraciously capitalized on.

And how Lewis portrays a devil who believes human beings are weak, puppet like and highly influenced by their circumstances.

“A Christian life is a life of ebbs and flows,” says McLean.

He plays Screwtape as a charming, smarmy salesman. Reminds you of a high-level businessman who knows how to talk the talk but sends others to walk the walk.

McLean tells me his influences included some of literature’s most famous men — Iago from Othello and Hannibal Lector from "The Silence of the Lambs." “He really wants to intimidate you,” McLean says of Screwtape.

“First of all, he wants to seduce you into his orbit, and then he wants to own you," he says. "And so there is this master of the universe type character that I think makes him very interesting.”

McLean isn't a stickler for tradition. He says it's fine to see his production before reading the book.

“I actually think that the play is probably a really good introduction to the book,” he says. "I think you should see the play and that will make the book far easier to understand and swallow. … We’ve taken the effort to simplify it and to clarify it."

Given the production's overtly Christian themes, I ask McClean if he thinks people from different religious traditions and the non-religious can appreciate it.

“Absolutely,” he says. “Lewis wanted to make the Christian faith understandable for a diverse audience.”

“There’s going to be a lot of things, for a lot of people, because it’s so profound, so thoughtful, so respectful of people’s intelligence across the board and I think that that is going to really allow a lot of people to enjoy it," he says. "Even if just for the language.”

When I ask McLean what he’d like his audience to take away from the production and from his performance, he doesn’t hesitate.

“The imagination is where the knowledge of God exists, and so what I’m looking for is that at the other side of it, they ask themselves this simple question: ‘could this be true?’ And if they ask that question, I’m happy.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Culture & Science • Faith Now • New York • United States

soundoff (54 Responses)
  1. huxley

    In Brave New World, one of the big bosses reveals a version of John Henry Newman's formula: We are made by ourselves. We are redeemed by ourselves. we are the creation and property of GOD. The decision is between God and nothing. aAl lewis' crap about gentle slopes and gradual decay is silly. He is a pseudo intellectual old maid with a gimmick.There is no suble discussion. You are Jewish, good for you. God picked you first. You enter first before any of us unworthy christians. None is worthy of what God has done for us. I am a person who believes that bread and wine can become (in the proper circumstances) the flesh of God Incarnate. I accept my madness.

    September 9, 2010 at 5:14 pm |
  2. Connor

    I saw this production in NYC and it was brilliant. I highly recommend it. http://www.screwtapeonstage.com

    September 2, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
  3. Historian

    Andrew, Have you read any Josh McDowell. Evidence that demands a verdict, or More than a carpenter?

    September 2, 2010 at 11:10 am |
  4. Mike

    Saw the play about two months in NY, was actually the same day as the times square car bomb. It was ok, some of the reference are modernized (terriost attack vs WWII). A lot of parts of the book left out but still a good play.

    September 2, 2010 at 8:38 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.