Review: ‘The Screwtape Letters’ from Hell to the stage

If the devil really is in the details, then C.S. Lewis got it right. His 1942 book, “The Screwtape Letters,” is a point-by-point turnabout of accepted values.

It consists of 31 letters from a supervisor in Hell who’s coaching his nephew, a young fiend, to take a mortal from the clutches of “the Enemy” above and bring him to “Our Father Below.”

 

Lewis’ clever flip-flop tramples on everything we think of as worthwhile – “our pernicious habit of charity,” for example. It was a brilliant idea, because it provided an opportunity to satirize the whole of humanity and to comment widely on the paradoxes of value systems.

As a play, it doesn’t work as well. The busy and amply talented Anthony Lawton, a Philadelphia-based actor, has returned to Lantern Theater to revive his own adaptation of “The Screwtape Letters,” one of several available reworkings that include film versions. Lawton is excellent in his portrayal of Screwtape, the letter writer and Netherlands know-it-all, and Sarah Gliko matches him as his droll and nasty assistant.

But the conceit of the book – that everything we perceive as good is really bad from another viewpoint, and the opposite – wears thin over 100 intermissionless minutes. (“There is no intermission in Hell,” the program notes tell us.) Lewis’ letter-writing prose becomes so school-marmish and stilted, the book’s twist on philosophy begins to sound repetitive, and the more complex ideas in his work frequently become lost in the telling.

Any way you look at it, “The Screwtape Letters” is hard to bring off as live theater. We face a reprehensible character who garners not a whiff of sympathy – or at least I hope not – and a situation that doesn’t quite come off quite in the satirical way as quiet reading affords. Lewis set down his letters in a series first published from time to time in “The Guardian” and then he collected them into the book. (I’d not read “The Screwtape Letters” until I caught up with it after seeing Lawton’s show.)

Lawton has devised several ways to break the tempo of his monologues to Screwtape’s nephew, who is unseen. The nephew, named Wormwood, is the same character as the little cartoon devil who deliciously tempts his target in one ear while a tiny angel sounds out heavenly persuasion in the other ear. Between declarations to Wormwood, Lawton’s Screwtape comes out from his desk down-under. With Gliko, the two engage in sword-play with rods, tap dancing, fire-eating and even some sado-masochism which, given the working conditions in Hell, is tantamount to a quick coffee break.

Lawton has written several adaptations and one original play, “The Foocy.” As an actor he’s versatile, and his chiseled look can be thoroughly menacing, especially in the right light. Amanda Jensen provides the light design that sometimes softens Lawton, sometimes makes him harsh, depending on where he stands on the stage. It feels right, having many shades of light Down There. Or, should I say, shades of darkness.

_“The Screwtape Letters,” produced by Lantern Theater Company, runs through June 15 at St. Stephen’s Theater, on 10th Street, south of Market. 215-829-0395 or www.lanterntheater.org.

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