The other side of the wardrobe 

With The Chronicles of Narnia commanding the holidays' biggest box-office revenues, Theatrical Outfit shows some cunning timing with its revival of C.S. Lewis on Stage, Tom Key's one-man portrait of the famed writer, poet and pop theologian. Don't expect Narnia mania, as the show never mentions witches or wardrobes (though it works in a lion or two). Nevertheless, Key's Lewis makes an eloquent and chummy companion for a couple of hours of stimulating talk.

The evening begins with Lewis preparing a public reading from his ingeniously satirical The Screwtape Letters, but he interrupts himself to write a letter, then takes further tangents to recite his poetry and fill in biographical details. The show effectively reminds us why Lewis became one of Christianity's most appealing advocates. He's no scolding Bible-thumper or abstract theorist, but a surprisingly regular guy for an Oxford University egghead. He has plenty of skepticism for modern churchgoing, and praises sensual pleasures with a riff on angels who, having no bodies, no skin, no noses, cannot appreciate earthly delights.

The show's highlights come when Lewis speaks in the voice of Screwtape, a senior devil sending letters to his nephew, a novice tempter trying to lead a human into a sinful life. Key vividly plays Screwtape as easily enraged but arrogant and self-satisfied, like a country club president reprimanding a caddie. Act Two begins with Screwtape delivering a speech to a graduating class of demons, and the moody lighting design seems to surround Key with infernal, billowing clouds. Here the content becomes a little suspect: Screwtape praises the 20th century's efforts to undermine individual achievement in the name of "equality," and Lewis sounds only a few degrees off from attacking affirmative action.

At times, Key's performance feels a little too big, as if he's trying to make clever bits of verse shake the walls like one of Henry V's speeches to his troops. Overall, C.S. Lewis on Stage efficiently captures the writer's attitudes, his infectious sense of humor and his humorous highs and lows. It doesn't quite stand on its own as a fully rounded dramatic journey. We expect more catharsis and, frankly, more details from Lewis' conversion to Christianity and his wife's death than we actually get. C.S. Lewis on Stage serves as a reminder that being spiritual, cerebral and witty need not be mutually exclusive.

C.S. Lewis on Stage runs through Jan. 22 at the Balzer Theater at Herren's, 84 Luckie St. Tues.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. $28-$43. 678-528-1500.


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