Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Theater Review: The Screwtape Letters

A Devilishly Clever Performance
By Lauren Yarger
Max McLean is a deliciously loathsome demon giving advice on how to keep humans from following God (and in consequence, dispensing some sage insights into how we allow the enemy to trip us up) in a slick Off-Broadway presentation of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

McLean (right, photos courtesy of Fellowship of the Performing Arts) has been touring the show, co-adapted and directed by Jeffrey Fiske, for a number of years, and practice has paid off. This version is tighter and more polished than the show that ran here in New York a few years ago.

Screwtape, a sort of dean of devils, writes a series of letters to his nephew, Wormwood, a recent graduate of the Tempters' Training College for young demons, who has been assigned to lead his first human subject to claim him for “our father below” and away from the “enemy” above. Sitting in large leather chair in his hellish quarters, glowing red and lined with the bones of human skeletons (Cameron Anderson, set design; Jesse Klug, lighting design), he dictates his advice, then closes each one with, "Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape," accenting the "P" heavily and triggering a crackling sound, as though the letter is sealed with a flame.

His servant demon, Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight, right), climbs a curved staircase to deliver the missives to a postal box not unlike a bank suction tube that sends them up to the waiting Wormwood.

McLean is both comical and scary as he suggests ways for Wormwood to keep his “patient” away from things that will lead him to God. When that fails, and the man becomes a Christian, the senior demon helps his protégé plan a strategy to keep the human from becoming too serious about his new-found faith and to stealthily direct him back towards hell.

“Bring us back food,” Screwtape cautions his nephew, “or be food yourself.”

You can almost hear him licking his lips in anticipation of devouring the man’s soul.

The adaptation captures much of Lewis’ dry wit and sage insight in the dialogue (a memorization tour de force for McLean) and more than once the audience gives a collective, cognitive "hmmm" as the truth of the enemy’s strategy and purpose is revealed.

“A moderated religion is just as good as no religion at all,” he says knowingly.

Wight, who has no lines but only grunts in a devilish way while crawling around gnawing on a bone or transcribing Screwtape’s words onto paper with a claw, is quite entertaining and wears a vivid costume designed by Michael Bevins. She also acts out the parts of humans Screwtape uses as examples in his letters to Wormwood. John Gromada’s original music and sound design, including select prerecorded pieces that help lend an other-worldly effect to Screwtape’s voice, complete the effect.

It’s a powerful production and enjoyable whether you are a C.S. Lewis fan or are asking, "C.S who?" Don’t miss it at the Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd St., NYC. For tickets, visit

Christians might also like to know:
• No content-related notes. Learn something!

Special Note: Hell freezes over at the Westside Theater where it is really cold during the 90-minute presentation without intermission. Bring a sweater or jacket and hit the restroom before.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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