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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 18, 2006

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Underneath the Lintel’

When "Underneath the Lintel" opened with little fanfare four years ago

at the Soho Playhouse Off-Broadway, it prompted only scattered

attention from the press. As occasionally happens, good word-of-mouth

built an audience that kept the show running for 15 months. This

intriguing and cleverly mystifying monologue by Glen Berger has

subsequently earned a fine reputation and deserved interest from

regional theaters.

The play embraces acceptable notion: That a relentless and tireless

search for an answer to a puzzling question can sometimes lead the

investigator into uncharted and unexpected territory. That could be

pretty heady stuff, especially in this case, as Berger’s protagonist,

a middle-aged Jewish Dutch librarian, finds himself in search of a

myth and the possibly miraculous. But the narrative is punctuated with

enough unpretentious humor and driven with enough intellectual

curiosity that his unlikely investigation becomes as disarmingly

winning as it becomes thought-provoking. On the down side, the

80-minute play isn’t really as profound or as persuasive as it

attempts to be. But that hardly seems to matter, as we are unwittingly

caught up in its cleverly contrived conceit.

Maria Mileaf, whose direction of "Going to St. Ives" by Lee Blessing

was one of the highlights of this past Off-Broadway season, has

directed this curiously compelling bit of mystically infused hogwash

with a relaxed command. Mainly she supports it as a solo playground

for Richard Schiff, an accomplished actor who many will immediately

recognize as (ex) White House communications director Toby Ziegler in

television’s "The West Wing."

Schiff loses no time in embellishing his role of the self-effacing

librarian with a full quotient of endearingly exercised ticks and

traits. If I can’t vouch for the authenticity of his accent, it is

subtly revealed and soft-on-the-ear. One of the librarian’s more

ingratiating charms is to demonstrate his ability to remember trivial

historical data prompted from any combination of dates he spins on his

book stamp.

As this whiskered, bespectacled, previously dedicated librarian has

been predisposed to making sure that no book left in the overnight

slot is overdue and deserving of a fine, we are certainly intrigued by

his newly-found incentive to put together the pieces of a puzzle he

uncovers within such a book and that lead him on a world-wide

investigative journey. That this journey lands him in hot water with

his superiors and ultimately finds him without a job is almost

irrelevant.

His life is altered when he finds an old Baedeker travel guide in the

book bin. How astonishing that the book was last checked out 113 years

ago. The resulting effort to find the person who returned a book

originally checked out in 1873 leads him over continents as he begins

to follow clues that keep popping up in the strangest places. The

results of his search and discoveries encourage him to give a public

lecture in a rented auditorium where he is now eager to validate and

share his findings. Although he begins to make his case with timidity

and restraint, he does eventually summon up the kind of fervor and

inquisitive passion that presumably sparked the unraveling of "The Da

Vinci Code."

As designed with austere simplicity by Neil Patel, the setting is the

stage of the auditorium, the only decor being a large white board

suitable for writing as well as for the showing of slides, a bulletin

board, a wooden chair, and a table upon which is placed a battered

suitcase. The suitcase contains bits and pieces of the clues that the

librarian has carefully marked as exhibit 1, 2, 3, etc. Each clue

provides the next link to his story as it progresses, and each clue

gets tacked up for us to see. Beginning with a London dry-cleaner’s

claim check dated 1913, used as a bookmark in the Baedeker, the

librarian is compelled to follow a trail that leads him to Dingtao,

China, to Germany, to New York, and to an attic in Australia.

He introduces each item and meticulously shares with us its

significance, as each one leads to the next via a strangely circuitous

course that goes as far back as the bible in the time of Jesus. The

lintel in the title refers to the headpiece of a doorway under which

Jesus rested on the way to the cross. Sherlock Holmes could not have

pursued or submitted a case as diligently or as methodically,

especially one as improbable and convoluted as is this one. The wonder

of the narrative is that we are kept intrigued with the librarian’s

logic as well as his perseverance, even as we are left pondering the

purposefulness of this man’s relentless search for an answer.

More importantly is how the librarian validates his life and the

pursuit of truth in the wake of an ever increasing number of

presumptions and postulations. The more preposterous the evidence

becomes the more the dots seem to be connected. Although the dots have

a way of fulfilling his apparent need to give meaning to his life, it

falters a bit when reduced to the myth of the wandering Jew as its

principal/prime catalyst.

In hindsight, however, how can we not admire a librarian who is

willing to call in sick, when he isn’t – "something no librarian has

ever done" – and not exactly remember whether he quit or was fired,

and eventually find himself seeking the very thing that he has become

and perhaps always was?

– Simon Saltzman

"Underneath The Lintel," through Sunday, February 5, George Street

Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. For tickets call

732-246-7717 or go to www.GSPonline.org.


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