Max McLean, left, and Karen Eleanor Wight
Max McLean, left, and Karen Eleanor Wight
NEW YORK – When C.S. Lewis, the Anglo-Irish novelist, lay theologian and Christian apologist, died on Nov. 22, 1963, a few days before his 65th birthday, media coverage of his passing was minimal, overshadowed in the United States by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and in Britain by the death of the novelist Aldous Huxley, of Brave New World fame.
In the intervening years, this pretermission has been all but erased by the enormous popularity of Mr. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, boosted by the highly successful Disney film version, and the interest of a new generation of readers in his writings: Space Trilogy, The Four Loves, Mere Christianity and the autobiography Surprised by Joy, all of which, in some way, deal with the topic of Christianity. Mr. Lewis was baptized a Christian, dropped away from it as a teen, and returned with fervor in his early 30’s.
Now, this summer, Mr. Lewis’s name appears again, prominently connected to two off-Broadway productions. His popular epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters has been adapted for the stage and directed by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean, with Mr. McLean in the lead role of Screwtape, a senior advisor to Satan. After successful engagements in cities across the country, "The Screwtape Letters" has just settled down for an open-ended run at the Westside Theatre at 407 W. 43rd St.
Twenty-one blocks uptown, at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theatre at 10 W. 64th St., playwright Mark St. Germain has conjured up a fictional play, "Freud’s Last Session." It is about a meeting between the aging father of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud (Martin Rayner), and the 41-year-old C.S. Lewis (Mark H. Dold). Mr. St. Germain has the nonbeliever Freud and the believer Lewis engage in an intellectual religious colloquy that is moderately entertaining, but only half as much fun as the devilish "The Screwtape Letters."
When Mr. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters, he was an Oxford don, and he dedicated it to his friend the writer J.R.R. Tolkien – who a few years later wrote another famous children’s fable, The Lord of the Rings. The Screwtape Letters catches Mr. Lewis in an ironic and playful mood, something that one does not often expect when the subject is hell and eternal damnation.
The play starts with Screwtape, dressed in red military regalia, as he gives a commencement address to his acolytes. Then Screwtape retires to his all-red library near hell – artfully decorated with a wall of skulls – dons a red-embroidered smoking jacket and settles down in an easy chair to begin his evil business of writing to Wormwood, his nephew and a fledgling temptor. In a series of letters dictated to a reptilian-looking secretary called Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight), he instructs his pawn Wormwood in luring a new prospective Christian, addressed only as "The Patient," into the unholy fold of Satan.
Screwtape’s lessons in evil mostly concentrate on the seven deadly sins, to which he feels humans are most vulnerable. Near the end of the play, Mr. McLean sums up how Screwtape’s philosophy of damnation should be sold: "The safest road to hell is the gradual one," he explains. "The gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."
Using mostly Mr. Lewis’s words, this play version , although a little talky and overblown at times, achieves a miracle of sorts: It is a sermon on evil that is insightful and frequently funny, thanks to Mr. McLean’s bigger-than-life theatrical performance.
Mr. St. Germain’s "Freud’s Last Session" is less successful. It is a "What if…?" play. The time is Sept 3, l939; the setting is Freud’s London study, exquisitely rendered by set designer Brian Prather. Dr. Freud, 83, is gravely ill in the final stages of mouth cancer and contemplating suicide. In reality, he will take his own life 20 days later.
Dr. Freud has summoned the author from Oxford because of some critical opinions Mr. Lewis has written of Freud’s theories in his book Pilgrim’s Regress. What ensues is a sparring match between the atheist Freud and the Christian Lewis. The two go at one another like first-class opponents. Dr. Freud, being the more experienced, is forthright and frank; Mr. Lewis at first seems a bit in awe of the man’s greatness, but eventually is able to stand up to him. In this sort of rally can be no winner, but the men’s arguments are often stimulating.
Mr. St. Germain has written often for television and knows how to land a laugh line easily. There just seems to be something artificial about his imaginary premise. He has not turned his speculation, "What if Freud and Lewis met…?" into a very exciting or dramatic play. The acting is first-rate: Mr. Dold, as the young Mr. Lewis, performs with a keen sensitivity. Mr. Rayner’s Dr. Freud is flawless; he embodies the psychoanalyst in body and spirit with a completeness that one seldom encounters. Yet, in the final analysis, "Freud’s Last Session" is a disappointment; a play about two 20th- century geniuses that does not do them justice.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.Editor's note:
"The Screwtape Letters" will close Jan. 9 after a successful nine-month run at the Westside Theatre (nearly 300 performances including previews). The production is scheduled for a multi-city tour in 2011 starring Max McLean beginning Jan. 15 at the Alex Theater in Glendale, Calif.; Jan. 29 at the Balboa Theatre in San Diego, Calif.; Feb. 12 at the Arlene Schnitzer Hall in Portland, Ore.; Feb. 26 at the Moore Theatre in Seattle, Wash.; March 19 at the Pikes Peak Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. More dates will be added for 2011. Please visit www.screwtapeonstage.com.
"Freud's Last Session" is currently in its final three weeks at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater. Because of a prior December booking commitment at the theatre, this limited engagement must end Nov. 28. For the final week, there will be no performance on Thanksgiving, Nov. 25, and there will be a special added matinee at 2 p.m. Nov. 26. For more information, visit www.FreudsLastSession.com.