NEW YORK (AP) — Many bureaucrats are all talk and no action. Apparently it's similar in the "lowerarchy" of hell, as portrayed in the thoughtful satire, "The Screwtape Letters," a devilishly funny theatrical adaptation of the C.S. Lewis novel about the battle between good and evil for the human soul.
The current off-Broadway production at the Westside Theatre is more streamlined than past presentations. Max McLean histrionically continues his tailor-made role as His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape, a senior demon who pompously dictates instructional letters intended for his hapless nephew, newly graduated from Tempters Training College for Young Devils, whom he unctuously addresses as "my dear Wormwood."
Following Lewis' narrative device of providing only the demon's viewpoint, Screwtape advises Wormwood on how to turn his human target, called "the Patient," away from Christianity, and lure him to the dark side, where he can be harvested by hungry demons.
Co-written and co-directed by McLean and Jeffrey Fiske, this production is tight and swiftly paced. The grisly rear wall of Screwtape's hellish office immediately sets a disturbing tone. At one point, Screwtape studies a file bearing the face of a familiar celebrity, while musing that "jumping around from one religion to another" is very good for his business.
You can't be a bureaucrat without staff to do the scutwork, so Screwtape dictates his letters to a reptilian imp named Toadpipe, a wordless role that Karen Eleanor Wight inhabits with remarkable agility. Underling Toadpipe does all the heavy lifting, scurrying about and repeatedly climbing up and down the pneumatic mail chute to ensure that her master's every bombastic missive is quickly conveyed.
Wight also snaps into an upright trance whenever Screwtape wants her to illustrate a human foible, then collapses back into her subhuman state of typing, squealing and growling. McLean exudes false charm and civility in his flamboyant portrayal of a demon battling against human salvation.
Lewis wrote insightfully about how easy it was for people to be led astray by the small things in life, among them, as Screwtape drily notes, "the very small print" of the Bible, which he hopes is too hard for humans to bother reading. When the Patient falls in love with a Christian woman, Screwtape confidently tells his nephew that "courtship sows seeds that will grow into domestic hatred."
Screwtape soon becomes disheveled from the intensity of his work dictating dire warnings, as Wormwood makes a lot of errors and seems to be in danger of losing "the Patient" to "the Enemy Above." McLean's delivery gets louder and more menacing as things start to go downhill, and even Toadpipe looks increasingly alarmed at her master's wrath.
The stage tilts downward toward hell, while fiery red glimpses beneath suggest nothing good. McLean and Wight make a diabolical duo, and Lewis' philosophical insights into human nature are cleverly conveyed in "The Screwtape Letters." The production is in a lengthy run through September.