[NoHo Arts District, CA] – A NoHo Arts theatre review of Actors Co-op Theatre Company in association with MWO Productions of Lewis and Tolkien, written and directed by Dean Batali, produced by Marc Whitmore, Lori Berg and Rob Loos, running through December 10.
I’m English, so C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien really are prerequisites of growing up to me. I have my own dog-eared copies of the Narnia Chronicles and several publishings of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit…and a few more of Tolkien’s lesser-known books. They were both fairly prolific and The Rings books are epic tomes…many long days and nights were spent by the fireside in mid winter with gallons of tea and packets of biscuits and those ever expanding volumes I can tell you. For us English, our lives are speckled by references to the stories, the language, the mythologies and the battles. And we all have large dusty wardrobes containing old coats and the promise of adventures. So I was thrilled when this play came to me and excited to sit in the lovely, womb-like Crossley Theatre.
The entire play is set in the pub where Tolkein and Lewis met regularly to talk about their work, along with the rest of their writer’s group for many, many years. The pub, The Eagle and Child, has been lovingly recreated by the very talented designers of The Actor’s Co-op and, although it may not be strictly speaking entirely accurate, it certainly seems extremely authentic and, for me, warmly familiar. The play is set several years since either of them have seen each other. Misunderstandings, harsh words, and years of regret have spun their disintegration into more and more years. But this meeting, called by Tolkien who first instigated the split, is sorely needed by them both.
These two sparing literary masters of the mythic genre are so loved, so deeply embedded in the culture that even then, in the late 60s, they were held in absolute awe. This is clearly evident by the fawning of the barmaid, Veronica, over Lewis and the Narnia books…although she comically has no clue who Tolkien is, or his “Rings.” Lewis’s books are far more affable than Tolkien’s that’s for sure. But Tolkien is worth the huge commitment and, if the massively successful film franchise is any measure, has a far longer life.
But that is not the story of this particular play. These two men were the closest of friends, for a very long time, and inspired each other’s work in ways that could never have been replicated or replaced. When Lewis married late in life, Tolkien objected. As a devout Catholic, Lewis’s new wife had been married once before and so to him, she was adulterous. It’s a strange reason to reject a close friend, and it really crushed Lewis. Now, years later, with his wife dead, far too young, Lewis accepted Tolkien’s invitation never knowing that it would be the last time they would meet.
And so we go back in time with them and hear the stories of how they met, how they inspired each other, how they struggled with their work, disagreed with premise and character and names and language, and how by holding each other to task and questioning everything, they made each other better writers. The ultimate writer’s group…can you imagine?
This is a wonderful immersive play. A treasured glimpse into the minds and hearts of literary giants. A joist of monologues and wit. A journey through a friendship that not only shaped them, but through their books shaped generations…and continues to do so.
How quintessentially English that it should all take place in a pub, with men in tweed sipping warm beer. It is based on an actual meeting they had more than 50 years ago and it should remind us all of how tremulous a thing is a friendship, and indeed a life.
The performances are exquisite. I felt as if I were genuinely in the presence of these magical men. I felt their connection, their regrets and their love for one another. Sitting in the darkness of this wonderful space, watching them move through their troubles, their relationship and the play was a rare delight.
How else would I ever have the chance to spend time with such icons, flawed as they were, struggling to find each other again and to forgive?
Lewis and Tolkien is a wonderful play, beautifully written and deftly directed. The performances are breathtaking by Phil Crowley as C.S. Lewis and Michael Beattie as Tolkien. They really didn’t miss a beat, poignant, touching and utterly believable. Bianca Akbiyik was also lovely as Veronica. A sweet and cheeky role that teased out their stubbornness and reminded them of the reasons they became friends in the first place.
They were a perfect match. In humor and in literature. Without each other, the books we all love so much would never have been written. Which is a wonderful way to resolve a friendship and a play. Bravo!!
October 27 – December 10
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2:30 pm
The Actors Co-op
1760 N Gower St. Los Angeles, CA 90028