Nothing to Fight Over

Lost jobs, lost opportunities, and lost souls

It happens so infrequently, that when a new and exciting young voice emerges in the theater, it’s almost impossible to resist shouting it from the rooftops. Such a voice is Josh Lefkowitz, a monologist, who in his debut full-length piece, “Help Wanted: A Personal Search for Meaningful Employment at the Start of the 21st Century,” reveals a talent, sensibility, and performance skill that is astonishing and exhilarating. With just a table and a script, Lefkowitz takes us on a wonderful journey through life as a student and young actor exploring the world he suddenly finds himself in. But as with the best of the form—Lefkowitz acknowledges his debt to Spalding Gray—the art is not in the facts but in the telling of the story, the richness of the world he creates, the vulnerabilities exposed. Anyone whose dreams have ever run headlong into reality can relate to this tender, angry, bemused, and beautifully rendered piece. Cancel anything you’ve planned to get to this show before its short run closes.

“Ring of Fire,” the so-called tribute to the music of Johnny Cash is an almost intolerably tedious jukebox musical, rattling around with “Good Vibrations” at the bottom of the cracker barrel. Richard Maltby Jr., who rustled up this mess, has strung a lot of Cash songs together and pretended it was a show. True, he has assembled a talented cast of singers, but by the end of the first act, it’s apparent that Johnny Cash recorded the same song over and over and over—and that real human interaction is virtually nonexistent. With the tinsel charm of a theme park revue, and a level of mugging and overplaying that would seem excessive in a grade school production of “Annie,” “Ring of Fire” is a pile of ashes.

The film “Walk the Line” has demonstrated that there is a coherent narrative to be dawn from Cash’s life—one that might even work on stage. The simple emotions and anything-but-complex chord patterns of the songs could evoke a dramatic honesty that would be compelling. Even if you’re not a fan of country music, there might be a journey that could touch your heart. Not here. The only moment when heart, soul, and music come together is when the company does “Daddy Sang Bass.”

Still, you have to appreciate the Broadway troopers who put their all into this show against all odds. Jason Edwards, Lari White, Jeb Brown, Beth Malone, and Jarrod Emick are seasoned pros who manage to make the best of things. I have always said that I would see Cass Morgan in anything she does. I guess I’ve kept my word; she’s a wonderful performer who outshines the material she’s given—she was lovely in last year’s “The Immigrant,” too.

Satan to C.S. Lewis was a worthy adversary—seductive, canny, and not to be taken lightly. With the zeal of a convert, Lewis used all the tactics at his command—poetry, allegory, satire, and unshakeable faith—to argue for a living God and the power of Christianity. Whatever your beliefs, you cannot escape the power of his craft or the passion with which he invites us to seek lives of trust in God.

One can only imagine Lewis spinning in his grave at the vapid readers’ theater production of “The Screwtape Letters” from FPA Theater Company. Director Jeffrey Fiske and actor Max McClean have turned Screwtape—an agent for the devil whose job is to secure souls for the boss—into an insufferable fop. McClean reads the letters with a false British accent so broad at times as to be unintelligible; had I not been so familiar with the source material I would have been lost in the sloppy diction. Who on earth would follow this Screwtape into hell? He seems more like your queer old uncle in a satin dressing gown making mannered pronouncements about musicals of the 1940s, not someone who could, if you weren’t careful, tempt you into eternal damnation.

Worse, he shares the stage with Toadpipe, a secretary who, as played by Jenny Savage, peppers the evening with interpretive dance and music-hall-broad reactions for no discernible reason. It is, however, as convincing a picture of hell as I’ve seen in a while.

Lewis believed in a muscular Christianity where temptation lay around every corner, and the devil’s appeal could be almost irresistible. Man by his very nature is vulnerable in Lewis’ view, which is why life is about training for—and fighting—the never-ending battle. That’s what makes life challenging and salvation worth having. If you’re spoiling for a fight, you want it to be a good one. What fun is there in beating a creampuff?

McClean’s Screwtape simply cannot be what Lewis had in mind. If he wants to win souls, Screwtape should muscle up, be seductive rather than smarmy. He should do something to be taken seriously, perhaps hit the gym so he doesn’t get sand kicked in his face… metaphysically, of course.

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