Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Eternal Zappiness: Screwtape and Safety Not Guaranteed

(reflections on C. S. Lewis's THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, adapted and directed for the stage by Jeffrey Fiske and Max Mclean, starring Max McLean; presented by The Fellowship for the Perofrming Arts at Woodruff Arts Center in Saturday June 16; and SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, a movie directed by Colin Trevorrow, starring Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass.)


Zap! In a flash of white light, a soul is saved, leaving behind strife, inner conflict, and ordinary existence. Two times this past weekend, I saw disparate works with this same effect: a staging of C. S. Lewis's SCREWTAPE LETTERS and a new movie SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED. The first is explicitly Christian; the other is geared to the "ironic post-college twentysomethings" who mock Christianity  (self-description of a reviewer of this Screwtape from NYTheatre.com) . In one, the soul escapes to heaven; in the other, the characters hope that time travel will take away the regrets and losses in their lives. This is very satisfying to watch. Don't we all wish that we could seriously believe that the day we quit this ordinary life is the day when we'll cross over to a new, eternally better one? But neither of these works wants us to take "happily ever after the zap" seriously.

SCREWTAPE is a satire. The title character is a mid-level martinet in the ranks of Hell, a military-industrical bureaucracy where the "intelligence department" has been working on the question "What is God really up to?" (since it's inconceivable that He really loves His creatures) and the Research Division has failed to develop even one pleasure -- so all the devils can do is to turn pleasure to sin through selfish obsession.

Other laughs come from the devils' insights. So, their "patient" has adopted Christianity, and has had an unselfish thought. "Have you made him aware of that fact?" Screwtape asks the novice tempter. "Make him proud of his humility." That got the biggest laugh of the evening, except for an exposition of what has constituted "sexy" in different eras, from regal reserve to silly fawning, to "girls who look like boys" and Screwtape's imitation of Madonna's strutting.

The premise of the entire novel / play is one great joke, variations of one overstatement. War, we're told, is of minor importance for the devil, and a wise devil won't enjoy it too much. But battles of cosmic consequence are over little things: a piece of toast, a little chuckle at someone else's expense, the distaste one may feel for the church usher with the oily smile.

For all of the witty little lessons along the way, and the dramatic apotheosis at the end, Lewis's great gift to us in this work is the insight that salvation is a transformation of ordinary things. Little may change in the routines of work and living, but everything changes in the seeing, as Charles Wesley's hymn says, "We walk by faith and not by sight." The danger to our salvation is in letting those daily failures, discomforts, and resentments transform us. Naturally, Lewis had to zap his man at the end, or the story would have dragged on, like real life, through middle age and the nursing home -- where Screwtape tells us the devils have the best chance of winning the battle!

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED delights, first, because of the actors who embody the characters. Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, a twentysomething intern whose face expresses "whatever" by default. Mark Duplass plays Stephen, a twentysomething loner who advertises for a companion to travel in time, "safety not guaranteed." Jake Johnson plays Jeff, a reporter at Seattle Magazine who sells his editor on the idea of investigating the whacko who placed that ad. Jeff takes a couple of interns, "the lesbian" (Darius) and "the geek" Arnau, played by Karan Soni.

That's the set up. What follows, really, is as old as As You Like It and Midsummer Night's Dream. Our band of mismatched reporters arrive in the boonies, and each finds love (at varying depths) and himself or herself.

When Stephen and Darius share their reasons for wanting to go back in time, we hit on a religious theme. Both carry the burden of deep regrets and guilt. For sci-fi buffs, it's obvious what to do about that: Go back in time to prevent the bad thing from happening. Each character is endearingly guarded and needy, and we root for them to get together, and to succeed in their quest.

Jeff, the sleazy reporter, has an ulterior motive for this trip. While the interns do the investigation, he is looking up a high school girlfriend. An online critic pointed out that this, too, is a form of time travel. Jeff is disappointed in her at first (time has put "s--- all over her face" he says, one of many crass statements), but it's not long before he's sharing dinner with her, and chores, too -- out feeding her chickens. After a setback, he turns his attention to Aura, coaching him through a night of "seizing the day" with some local girls.

It's not in the time travel, not in the chorus of angels, not in the zap of light, but in those everyday things -- buttering the toast, feeding the chickens, seeing the beauty and honoring the dignity in others -- that salvation begins and grows. It's a message in both SCREWTAPE and SAFETY, not loud, but clear.

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