LEWIS AND TOLKIEN - World Premiere at Actors Co-op

Reviewed by Amanda Callas

Lewis and Tolkien is a fascinating, introspective new world premiere play at the award-winning Actors Co-op in Hollywood, written and directed by Dean Batali.

The play is a rich, pensive conversation between famed fantasy authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, in a pub in Oxford. Anchored by a brilliant performance by Phil Crowley as Lewis, Lewis and Tolkien is an intellectual pleasure not to be missed.

For quite some time, Lewis and Tolkien were invaluable to each other. Both university teachers and scholars, they shared a common interest in "fairy stories," languages, literature, history, spirituality and philosophy. Both men lost parents at a young age, and both experienced the horrors of the trenches of World War I. Tolkien was instrumental in helping Lewis discover his sense of faith and his spiritual home in the Christian church, which led to Lewis' great spiritual and philosophical writings like Mere Christianity and his beloved, allegorically Christian fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia . Lewis inspired and supported Tolkien in writing his legendary fantasy series The Lord of the Rings . It's quite possible that without each other, their greatest literary works and profound legacy might not exist at all.

It's refreshing, when so much of the noise around artists and innovators focuses on the mystic inevitability of their success and the irreversible thrust of their individual brilliance, to see Lewis and Tolkien , a play that celebrates their interconnectivity, support, fragility, and the slow and jagged path to inspiration. It's also lovely to see a production that is so much about the challenges and immense richness of friendship. In a similar vein, I think the early, explosive success of Pixar had much to do with its insightful exploration of the nuances, jealousies, rewards, and textures of friendship with delights like Toy Story and Monsters Inc .

In this play, Lewis and Tolkien meet in 1963 by the fireplace in their beloved favorite pub, staged richly and beautifully by award-winning theatre director and designer Joel Daavid. Honestly, the set is just gorgeous, so specific in its period and feel, and so homey and inviting you never want to leave. It is a bittersweet and poignant meeting. After having been so inseparable and instrumental in each other's lives for so many years, Lewis and Tolkien have now been estranged for some time. New friends in their social and intellectual club, The Inklings, came between them.   Literary disagreements took on some bitterness when Tolkien was disparaging of Lewis' work, seeing it as painfully heavy-handed and referring to it, at various times, as "outside the range of my sympathy" and "distressing and in parts horrifying." Likewise, Tolkien also felt that Lewis was not his biggest fan, saying that "To tell the truth, [he] never really liked hobbits very much." In their own lifetimes, Lewis was the greater success, a Christian and literary celebrity, the "Everyman's Theologian," who cranked out books at a brisk pace, which irked Tolkien, a slow writer and a quiet, introverted man by temperament and conviction who avoided the spotlight.

Most fatally, Tolkien, a devoted Catholic, never could accept Lewis' wife Joy. Joy Davidman was a Jewish poet and writer from New York, a former child prodigy, intellectual, artistic, feminist, and ballsy, who found her way to Christianity through detours in atheism, Scientology and communism. She fell in love with Lewis while she was still married to her first husband, a philandering and abusive alcoholic who wrote the classic 1946 novel Nightmare Alley , twice adapted into striking films, first with Tyrone Power in 1947 and then brilliantly and hauntingly by Del Toro in 2021. Lewis first married Joy out of friendship, to help her and her sons avoid deportation from the UK, but later wrote of coming to care for her deeply, only to lose her to cancer.

Theatregoers might know about the profound love between Lewis and his wife from the 1993 Richard Attenborough film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins, or from Lewis' own book A Grief Observed, perhaps one of the most moving and searing books about loss ever written. When Tolkien disapproves of Lewis' marriage and then fails to offer condolence to Lewis after Joy's death, it becomes a festering wound.

Lewis and Tolkien is on one level purely about these literary giants and their lives, but playwright Dean Batali also creates an urgent warning, about all the things we can lose while we are busy being irritated by the things we have. Through his writing and direction, Dean Batali intimately and thoughtfully explores friendship, the devastating pain of loss, and the tempting dangers of neglecting people we love and allowing judgment, pride, jealousy, and disagreements to get in the way.

At times, the character of barmaid Veronica feels a bit like a literary device and less like a fully realized character on her own. There are moments when it feels like she exists purely to draw out exposition and explanations more naturally from the two old friends of their literary works and important moments of their friendship. I don't know if her blanket adoration, while realistic (who wouldn't be impressed with their immense literary legacy and the vast fictional universes they created?), works nearly as well as her initial sassy indifference. I like this character much more when she is irreverent, funny, and unimpressed with Lewis and Tolkien. Bianca Akbiyik brings warmth, charm, and realism to the part of Veronica.

Award-winning Canadian-American actor Michael Beattie bears such a striking physical resemblance to Tolkien that it is almost as if the play resurrected him. Blessed with an incredible voice that he often uses in his impressive voiceover work in Minions, The Grinch, Despicable Me, The Lorax, and much more, Beattie brings subtle shadings, striking dignity, delicious humor, intelligence and a rich interior life to a quiet and introverted character.

Phil Crowley's performance as Lewis is astonishing in all its texture, conviction, realism, wit, intellectualism, vulnerability, and tenderness. This is a bravura masterpiece of a performance, and it is not surprising that Crowley has been playing C.S. Lewis now for 8 years in a hit one-man play that has toured across the world including Oxford, Jerusalem, and Amsterdam.

Writer and director Dean Batali is an accomplished writer and producer on series like That 70s Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Good Witch , and Destination Heaven , as well as a creator of musical theatre. He brings great intellectual curiosity, keen warmth and humor, thoughtfulness and sensitivity to his writing and direction.

It may be difficult to the audience to follow some of Lewis and Tolkien without at least some of knowledge of Tolkien, Lewis, and their greatest works and ideas, but spending some time skimming through their fantasy wonderlands could hardly be considered a punishment.

In fact, one of the greatest unexpected pleasures of the play may be in inspiring theatergoers to dive into Lewis and Tolkien's legacies, rich biographies, vast imaginations, and stimulating literary and spiritual ideas, for themselves. Writer-director Dean Batali, producers Marc Whitmore, Lori Berg, and Rob Loos, and the creative team at the Actors Co-op Theatre have created a rare intellectual and literary delight.

Lewis and Tolkien runs at The Crossley Theatre at The Actors Co-op through December 3rd. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission. Tickets/Info: www.ActorsCo-op.org or (323) 462-8460. Free lot parking. The Crossley Theater, 1760 N. Gower St., on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, Hollywood CA 90028.

Posted By DH Magazine on October 31, 2023 06:06 pm | Permalink