William Nicholson's "Shadowlands" is a tepid chronicle of the relationship between the British writer C.S. Lewis and the American poet Joy Davidman. Lewis, an eminent literary and theological scholar, is probably best known as the author of the children's book "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."
In 1936 Lewis wrote "The Allegory of Love," in which he theorized that medieval love poetry was always adulterous, the love of a knight for his king's wife, like Lancelot's love for Guinevere. His writing on this subject seems relevant since when he met Davidman, several decades later, she was a married woman. By then he was in his mid-50s, a life-long bachelor who lived with his older brother, leading a scholarly, eccentric, apparently sexually neutral life.
She was clearly infatuated with him. She had written him fan letters from New York before she met him. She and her younger son moved to Oxford to be near him. He, however, seems to have regarded her mainly as a friend, though he married her secretly in a civil ceremony so she could gain British citizenship. Then, when she had terminal cancer, they had a proper religious ceremony in the hospital. Only when she is dead does he understand the depth of his love for her.
Occasionally he makes trenchant remarks about his situation. "It's all love and sex these days," he observes at one point. "Friendship is almost as quaint and outdated as chastity," he says, adding that friends will soon be as rare as elves or pixies.
You sense that Nicholson has been extremely careful about the words he puts in Lewis' mouth, and that much has been culled from Lewis' own writing. Such genial wit is the chief virtue of this rather plodding account of their lives together, which tells us very little about either of them.
Nicholson originally wrote "Shadowlands" for British TV, and I suspect this is simply a curtailed version. Despite its literary personages, despite the many interesting questions their relationship raises, the play never has the size or power of theater.
To give the evening at least an aura of intellectual pretension, director Elijah Moshinsky has interrupted his largely conventional staging to create an odd moment with a surreal landscape that materializes behind the hospital bed while a pseudo-ritual gesture occurs in front of it.
Nigel Hawthorne plays C.S. Lewis ingratiatingly. His tweed jacket is rumpled, his corduroy trousers are rumpled, and even his soft, flabby body seems rumpled, a veritable comfy sofa of a man. His bumbling, however, is entirely believable and oddly endearing. My suspicion is that there was a darker side to Lewis that the play leaves unexplored.
Jane Alexander is thoroughly unconvincing as Davidman. Even her American accent sounds forced, as if she were a foreigner. One of the key things about Davidman is that she's Jewish. This may account for her drive, her aggressiveness and, for Lewis, her unexpected charm. Alexander conveys none of this. She is skillful at getting laughs, but we have no sense of the character behind the smart remarks.
Unlike some critics I am not averse to a genteel evening in the theater, but "Shadowlands" is so very genteel even I found it rough going.
Why do bad things happen to good people, why does God - should he exist - slaughter the innocent, and what is this thing called love?
These are the commonplace questions raised by William Nicholson's engrossing, entertaining and far from commonplace play, "Shadowlands," which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
It should be seen, partly for the play itself, which is based on facts and proves literate, well-crafted and discreetly brilliant, but even more for the acting of its two principals, Nigel Hawthorne, absolutely superb as a curmudgeonly Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, who finds fulfillment late in life with the love of a minor American poet, Joy Davidman, played with consummate intelligence by Jane Alexander.
Speaking as a sometime student, C.S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar, science-fiction writer and pop-theologian, struck me as an intellectual bully on matters academic, and perhaps something of an intellectual fraud on matters theological. A dazzling lecturer and the author of what is still, I believe, the standard text on medieval "courtly love," he appeared to be an unlikely candidate for a passionate love affair on any more material terms, or even for an emotional realization of the power of God, and the nature of suffering.
Yet clearly the fashionable don that I recall - even his lectures were packed like pop concerts - was obviously transmogrified by this first and winter love and the awful subsequent shock of loss.
Davidman, at first a pen pal, who Lewis only marries "technically" to give her British citizenship enabling her to stay in England with her children, develops into a total and passionate obsession with him after it becomes apparent that she is dying of bone cancer.
All of Lewis' glib assurances about the "gift of suffering" and that "pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world" apparently take on a meaning for him that extends beyond cerebral gamesmanship and nearly breaks his heart.
The play is full of bright speeches - some more convincing than others - and offers a quaint and cozy view of Oxford academic life that admittedly has more the tone of friendly caricature than reality.
Luckily Elija Moshinsky's swift staging glides over the shallower waters and even makes light of some of the more parochial Anglicisms (how many New Yorkers know of Gilbert Harding or even Peter Townshend?), even though both he and his designer Mark Thompson venture rather heavily into the symbolism of Lewis' sci-fi trying to endow the play with more weight than it can easily carry.
I missed "Shadowlands" in London, but the Broadway cast could hardly be better. I was particularly taken by Michael Allinson as Lewis' understanding brother, and Paul Sparer as a blowhard colleague. The sweet acid of Alexander's emotionally battered, blue-stocking divorcee seems pure wonder, but it is Hawthorne's play.
Looking like a remarkable amalgam of Lewis himself and Ralph Richardson, Hawthorne magnificently plays the drama as if it were a church organ. Larger than life, yet smaller than death, Hawthorne runs from flippant profundity to the extremity of pain with the pace of a champion. What a performance!
Jack is a crusty, remote middle-aged Oxford don, a devout Anglican who is more comfortable chatting to God than to the opposite sex. Joy is a 40-ish New Yorker, a Jewish convert to Christianity with a big mouth and a failing marriage. Jack and Joy strike up an unlikely epistolary friendship, rendezvous in Oxford and, overcoming all obstacles, fall in love. No sooner do these opposites attract, however, than tragedy, in the form of terminal illness, tears them asunder.
Thus in rough outline goes "Shadowlands," and who could imagine a tidier recipe for a television movie? The audience gets to have an odd-couple comic romance -- a sort of May-September, trans-Atlantic "Bridget Loves Bernie" -- and a disease of the week, too. "Shadowlands" in fact began its life as a television drama, but because Jack is the nickname for C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), the scholarly proselytizer for Christianity and the author of the evergreen Narnia fantasies for children, and because Joy was Joy Davidman, the American poet he married near the end of both their lives, it was produced by the tony British television, not the usual Hollywood suspects. Starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom, the 52-minute film was broadcast in the United States on public television in 1986.
Now "Shadowlands" is a play of considerably more than twice that length that has arrived on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater via the West End. The stars are Nigel Hawthorne, a rightly beloved fixture on the British comedy series "Yes Minister," and Jane Alexander, whose spunky Joy may remind many of her appearance as another strong-willed wife in another nonfiction TV romance, "Eleanor and Franklin."
How you will feel about "Shadowlands" depends a great deal on your degree of Anglophilia. The play, by William Nicholson, has little more intellectual or emotional depth than a tear-jerker set in two-car-garage suburbia, but it does boast a certain rarefied British atmosphere. This is the kind of work that is often described as "literate," especially by nonreaders, because its characters frequently mention works of literature. As at "84 Charing Cross Road," its London theatrical prototype, no visitor to "Shadowlands" need worry that anyone on stage will be so boorish as to discuss the actual substance of the books and authors whose names are bandied about.
Even those who find "Masterpiece Theater" as resistible as I do are likely to be charmed by the endearing Englishness of Mr. Hawthorne, who happens to be South African. With a rumpled, well-worn face and gingersnap voice to match his tweed jacket, Marks & Spencer sweater and corduroy pants, his C. S. Lewis is Mr. Chips, Dr. Doolittle and the shaggy professor once played by Michael Hordern in Tom Stoppard's "Jumpers" all in one.
Never pretending that Jack is anything other than an old softie at heart, Mr. Hawthorne is a joy to watch as "Shadowlands" lumbers toward the inevitable scenes in which Ms. Alexander's Joy penetrates his confirmed bachelorhood. In the play as in life, Jack first marries Joy "technically" -- so she can settle in England with her young son after her divorce -- and then marries her in earnest, as she lies in a hospital bed, a victim of bone cancer. In between these two benchmarks, Mr. Hawthorne migrates from absent-mindedness to passion. His performance reaches an exquisite peak of comic turmoil when he finds himself torn between the gesture he always uses to put off Joy's affection -- a random, reflexive search of his many pockets for some unspecified object -- and his ravenous hunger for a kiss.
When suffering overwhelms his spirit, Mr. Hawthorne goes further still, spitting out his grief in pink-faced rage. The actor makes one see how "Shadowlands" might have been as moving as Lewis's own memoir, "A Grief Observed." But Mr. Nicholson and Ms. Alexander undercut the actor by refusing to bring his romantic partner to life. As written, Joy is a generic, wisecracking literary broad, a Dorothy Parker wind-up doll.
While Ms. Alexander's comic timing is expert, notably during a Greek honeymoon that is the play's funniest interlude, she is never given a chance to act the rest of this woman, whose renunciations of Judaism and leftism were central to her character. (Can one imagine an American playwright reducing Joy Davidman's discarded Judaism to a gag, as Mr. Nicholson does?) The heroine's deeper feelings are usually sidestepped entirely, often by having the actress turn away from the audience or dart offstage at emotional climaxes. When Joy succumbs to love, Ms. Alexander lets down her hair, not her guard; her descent toward death is delineated most persuasively by her makeup and declining posture.
Perhaps to compensate for the absence of any real psychological intimacy -- the couple's sex life, or lack of same, is never mentioned -- "Shadowlands" turns to Lewis's Narnia books for mystical scenic tableaux that, in the most literal-minded fashion, periodically equate Jack's new domestic ecstasy with the world of wonder discovered by children in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and its sequels. In lieu of fleshing out his characters, Mr. Nicholson also piles on touristic local color, padding the evening with repetitive anecdotes about the high-table clubbiness of Jack's masculine academic circle at Oxford. The weak American supporting cast, typified by Paul Sparer's buffoonish caricature of a misogynistic don, compromises what wit these scenes offer and also vitiates the authenticity of Mark Thompson's handsome scenery and the lighting designer John Michael Deegan's wonderfully exact wintry Oxbridge gloom.
Unlike most of his casting, Elijah Moshinsky's staging is graceful, except when he and the designers are playing with the set's front scrim or hammering in the Narnia-inspired metaphor of the title. The director has elicited one excellent supporting performance, too, from Michael Allinson, as Jack's devoted older brother and housemate. But the Lewises' fraternal bond, like the play's other important secondary relationship, between Joy's son and Jack, is so sketchily drawn that it cannot carry the dramatic weight it must in the evening's waning scenes.
The same superficiality attends the play's potentially fascinating philosophical conflict: How can Lewis reconcile his belief in a benevolent God's Heaven with the pain and suffering he experiences on earth? Mr. Nicholson raises such questions only to resolve them happily and instantaneously, before anyone might be tempted to turn the channel. In "Shadowlands," even death becomes the stuff of genteel entertainment, no more troubling or surprising than a patch of gray during an otherwise sunny West End afternoon.