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June 24th, 2010

What with travel and jet-lag and getting ready for the next trip, we haven't been to the theater in, oh, weeks.  However, tonight, in honor of my natal day, Ellen got tickets to The Screwtape Letters.

Which I will tell you all about.  But first, dinner.

A while back, we asked Barry Goldblatt (Agent to the Stars) to recommend a fancy-pants restaurant suitable for a business dinner when somebody else was paying.  He guided us to Aureole, a lovely place on 42nd Street, a couple blocks East of Broadway.  And it was a hit.  Such a hit that when Ellen suggested we go there for my birthday treat dinner, I said "yes" before she'd even finished the sentence.

I had heirloom tomato gazpacho with a little watermelon and avocado and crab island in the middle of it.  The watermelon was a bit odd, but the avocado and crab went beautifully with the mild acidity of the extremely smooth and seed-free gazpacho.  We both had herb-encrusted salmon and asparagus in white gazpacho sauce for the main course.  I don't know what was in the sauce--it was quite white and almost sweet.  Yellow tomatoes?  Cream?  A little basil oil, for sure.  Delicious. 

Dessert was a real extravaganza.  We both ordered strawberry fool with tiny meringues and strawberry chunks, and they were delicious.  As we were eating, though, suddenly four waiters appeared around the table, beaming and bearing a plate with a candle and "Happy Birthday Delia" written in chocolate around the edge.  And two absolutely black cubes of super-dense chocolate, sprinkled with gold flakes, resting on top of concentric circles of really thick caramel sauce, next to a dollop of very creamy ice cream resting on a bed of crumbled toffee.

They did not sing.  They didn't have to.  They just said, "It's not a birthday without chocolate," and left us to it.  And how was it?  Let me put it this way:  If we hadn't been in a fancy-pants restaurant with white tablecloths and hot and cold running waiters and guys in suits and women in 4" heels, we'd have licked the plate.

And then we ran for the theatre, and plumped down in our seats just in time for the lights to go down and Screwtape Letters to begin.

I love C.S. Lewis.  I started out with Narnia in first grade, read the Space Trilogy when I was in high school, and taught Till We Have Faces in a fantasy lit course.  I've read his criticism and scholarship, and all his Christian apologies, meditations, and memoirs, from Pilgrim's Regress to Surprised by Joy.  We part company on a number of issues--his attitude towards women, the church, and his definition of selfishness, for instance--but otherwise, I find his theology a lot less icksome than most.  And I've always loved The Screwtape Letters.  I love the voice of Screwtape and the gormlessness of Wormwood and the undercurrent of genuine horror and hopelessness that makes this Hell and this devil absolutely believable--a voice and an undercurrent that the production currently playing at the Westside Theatre preserves brilliantly.

It opens with His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape addressing the graduates of the Tempters' Training College for Young Devils.  The action takes place on a precarious triangle floating above the real stage floor, paved with square cobbles and furnished with a lectern, a comfy chair, an ottoman, a wavy iron ladder that ascends to Earth, and various trapdoors, leading deeper into the Other Place.  The background is a tasteful frieze of bones and skulls. The eponymous letters Screwtape are stuffed into a pneumatic box, whooshing up and down between Hell and Earth, accompanied by a red light indicating the direction.  The effect is cozily disturbing, or perhaps disturbingly cozy, entirely appropriate for a don's office in Hell.

As Screwtape, Max McLean was urbane, jocular, avuncular, and formidably well-versed in infernal logic.  Once the action (such as it is) moves to his office, he makes such a rounded character of Lewis's rather one-note devil that you really feel for him, stuck exchanging letters with his rather lame Junior Tempter nephew who is constantly asking for temptation advice and then screwing it up because temptation, apparently, takes as much discipline and focus as resisting it.  Elise Girardin, as the secretary-demon Toadpipe, provides the demonic subtext--the id to Screwtape's hellish superego.  Androgynous, clad in scales and feathers, with a crest down her back and a horned headdress as indescribable as the Gollux's, hissing and growling wordlessly as she scribbles down Screwtape's dictation onto a pad--with her feet, her claws, her nose. Toadpipe was simply riveting.  Whenever she moved, I couldn't look away.

The whole thing was a real tour de force, and much better theatre than Peter Brook's The Grand Inquisitor.  And despite the fact that Lewis's theology is definitely clouded by sexism and elitism, there's still a lot that rings true in his reverse-engineered portrait of what a good life looks like.  Although it's been long and long since I set foot inside a church except for early music concerts, I may even dig out my old copy of The Screwtape Letters and re-read it.


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