By Glen Berger
Starring David Strathairn
Directed by Carey Perloff
American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), San Francisco
Oct. 23-Nov. 17, 2013
There is something mesmerizing about the rhythm of Glen Berger’s “Under the Lintel.” Just as you think you are falling asleep in the beginning of the eccentric Dutch librarian’s rambling tale of receiving a book in the “return slot” that is 113 years overdue, you jolt awake to the awareness that you are listening to no less than the history of the world — and mankind’s struggle to make sense of it. Some 90 minutes later, as the formerly-stodgy ex-librarian (he got fired for taking time off to travel the globe in search of the offending reader) dances off the stage to a jaunty klezmer tune, you realize that you have witnessed something of a theatrical miracle.
“Underneath the Lintel” is about miracles and — whether you believe in them or not — it’s hard to remain unaffected by what it is telling you. David Strathairn (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) is something of a miracle himself in this bravura solo performance. Deftly directed by American Conservatory Theater artistic head Carey Perloff in a new production (the play ran for some 450 performances in New York), he embodies the Everyman, searching for some meaning and a way to get along in a senseless, often violent and cruel world. And, in that, his journey mirrors that of the man he seeks, none other than The Wandering Jew, a legendary figure who turned the suffering Christ away from his doorstep as he carried the cross to Golgotha, thus dooming himself to roam the earth for all time, much like The Flying Dutchman, now playing at the San Francisco Opera House just down the road.
I digress, but “we will proceed” as the librarian says whenever he goes off the track of his tale. And “we will proceed” may well be the mantra of this story — unless it is “I was here,” a graffiti found on rocks, caves and walls through the ages, perhaps written by his quarry or, as the librarian observes, by Kilroy, either way a metaphor for man’s journey through the world. Ably aided by Nina Ball’s inventive set design, something of a British jumble sale of trunks, clothes racks and other debris, flanked by a giant blackboard on which the librarian draws rude replicas of things like dogs and his brain and a pull-down screen on which maps and photos appear, Strathairn makes his incredible journey, opening up a meek man’s life as he goes.
Did I mention that this is all very funny? Well, it is, partly due to the script and partly to the actor’s superb characterization. There’s a running joke about a certain Broadway show and another about the librarian’s ambitious associate back in Holland and a lot more. The librarian’s befuddled manner is pretty hilarious on its own.There are many delights in “Underneath the Lintel.” Step in and enjoy them.