Literary legend comes to life with David Payne’s witty one-man show, ‘An Evening With C.S. Lewis’

David Payne/Courtesy

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Half a century after his death in 1963, British author C. S. Lewis was honored with a memorial stone in the “Poet’s Corner” of Westminster Abbey, cementing his legendary status. With a wide range of academic, religious and fictional works, Lewis is an undoubtedly influential figure in the world of English literature and beyond — and now, for only a few nights in the Marines’ Memorial Theatre, audiences can witness this literary genius come back to life in a whip-smart one-man show, titled “An Evening with C.S. Lewis.”

The small San Francisco theater had been transformed for this show into a cozy sitting room near Oxford, England. The date was 1963, less than a year before Lewis’s death, and the setting was comfortably simplistic: a bookshelf, a desk, a side table set for teatime and one rigid armchair. It was in this chair that the show’s writer and sole actor, David Payne, took his place, and it is here that he remained for most of the show’s two hours, playing the role of Lewis himself.

One may fear that listening to two hours of a British man chatting away in his armchair might be a stuffy or dull experience. Instead, what ensued was a lively night of warm reminisce and humorous anecdotes. In fact, the first act of the show reads almost like a stand-up routine, complete with a perfectly-timed punchline for every story that Payne whips up.

Within minutes of the opening, Payne had the crowd in stitches. Speaking as Lewis, he thanked his audience of “American writers” for coming to visit him, claiming that an author is always better admired in a foreign country. He then launched into a lengthy poem about a writer whose work was considered poor by his own country but was well-received by the masses of another. He ended the poem with a pause and a deadly quip: “Thank God for the U.S. of A.” It was a decidedly British joke (and an antiquated one, too), but it nevertheless was met with uproarious laughter from the San Francisco audience.

But the play wasn’t just lighthearted jokes and witty poems. After all, it is impossible to discuss C.S. Lewis without discussing his Christian faith. During his life, Lewis produced a number of influential religious works, such as “Mere Christianity.” His widely-known fictional series, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” has been critiqued by authors like Philip Pullman for having a distinct religious agenda. Pullman’s criticisms are also rooted in the underlying racist and sexist tropes that appear in Lewis’s “Narnia” — issues that underlie many works in the fantasy genre, like those of Lewis’s good friend and fellow author J.R.R. Tolkien.

Payne’s Lewis took a more even-handed approach toward religion; at one point, he asserted that although he often wrote about faith, he did not intend to “ram it down people’s throats.” And while these references to religion may be somewhat off-putting for non-Christians, they were ultimately not what drove the play forward. The experience of listening to Lewis’s stories should be wholly enjoyable for audience members of any religious background.

Even with its impeccable humor, the play ran into a few lulls as it went on, particularly in the first act. While Payne’s dry and pleasantly mocking tone made for a perfect Lewis imitation, it also meant that at times his delivery lacked in variety. Certain anecdotes seemed to devolve into rambling, specifically when he traversed from the author’s childhood to his days as an Oxford professor.

Still, it can be said that these very faults were what gave “An Evening with C.S. Lewis” a bit of its charm. The play truly felt like witnessing the reminiscence of an old man, celebrating his life at its twilight. And when even the most long-winded stories came packed with a killer punchline, who wouldn’t want to listen in?

Lauren Sheehan-Clark covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].