There’s wit and passion and conviction in The Screwtape Letters, too—the material, in which one of hell’s senior bureaucrats counsels a hapless underling in the finer arts of human temptation, comes courtesy of C.S. Lewis, after all, but the stagy almost-solo show running downtown at the Lansburgh doesn’t spark to life quite the way Judas does. Intelligently designed it certainly is, and handsomely produced (love the raked triangular island from which the titular demon dispatches his epistolary advice), but the conceit will strike many as a bit too page-bound to work on the stage.
Not everyone, of course; there are those who think that Lewis’ mischievous, upside-down arguments (the Letters are in fact a carefully built Christian apologia, of course) were meant to be read aloud, “preferably with lip-smacking relish,” as Terry Teachout put it in enthusiastically recommending a 2006 off-Broadway production. That staging was built, like this one, around the sulfurously ripe performance of Max McLean, who’s still smacking his lips greedily over Lewis’ juicy rhetorical morsels. If he’s gnawing occasionally on Cameron Anderson’s well-furnished boneyard of a set, too—well, it’s a showcase of a part, no?
Apparently the evening’s other character has been reconceived a bit: In New York, the secretary-demoness to whom Screwtape dictates his increasingly irate missives apparently wore red fishnets and did a bit of interpretive dancing between letters. Here she’s a kind of grim Cirque du Soleil reject, a hissing, snarling, bone-nibbling thing who undulates around in a feathered-and-finned leotard when she’s not morphing into one or another of the humans Screwtape describes so derisively. (None of the above, by the way, is meant as a knock on the agile Karen Eleanor Wight, whose wordlessly expressive performance is as compelling as anything else on stage.)
It’s just that wit or no wit, insight or no insight, the novelty of Lewis’ conceit wears off after a bit, and that once McLean has plumbed this vocal register and that, tried one physical attitude and another, there’s not much in the way of character-defining content (to say nothing of actual dramatic conflict) to keep an audience tuned in. Which means that in this 90-minute sermon, most of the congregation will spend the final 15 minutes or so longing for the sound of the recessional.