Glen Berger’s persuasive single-hander “Underneath the Lintel” follows the odyssey of an obsessive Dutch librarian whose curiosity begins with the return in an overnight book drop of a tattered volume that appears to be a mere 131 years overdue. The book is an edition of a Baedeker Travel Guide in “deplorable condition,” containing a bookmark that turns out to be an unredeemed 73-year-old Chinese laundry claim check. The clues surface and mount, tease and taunt, and what might appear to be little more than a dull literary exploration becomes a dark and complex mystery that transcends the ages.
The bookish clerk (Richard Schiff) journeys to London to the still existing laundry to find a rumpled pair of striped trousers, containing a faded train ticket dated 1912. The librarian’s pilgrimage takes him from Bonn to Beijing and Manhattan, with side trips to Germany, Greece and France. Despite the fact that he has lost both his job and pension, and is occasionally diverted by red herrings that discourage his relentless pursuit, the determined amateur sleuth trudges on into the depths of Biblical lore.
Convinced that the legend of the Wandering Jew — a cobbler who denied Jesus Christ a cup of water and was condemned to roam the earth until the second coming — was nothing more than a myth, the librarian’s search often appears as futile as the search for the existence of the elusive traveler, Kilroy, referred to in the play.
As the tweedy unnamed librarian, “The West Wing” regular Schiff pilots the spiritual time machine with scholarly authority and generous doses of devilish, wry humor. The thesp becomes an elfin tour guide who manages to invest his global trot with a mesmerizing sense of awe and wonder.
Director Maria Mileaf has skillfully drawn the viewer into the global mystery with spare staging that focuses attention on the narrative’s compelling twists and turns.
The cold, barren set of an empty stage is furnished with a plain table, a chair and a chalkboard. Occasionally, slide projections offer a sense of time and place, from a marquee on Charing Cross Road to the Great Wall of China or the Trylon and Perisphere at Flushing Meadow that was the centerpiece of the 1939 World’s Fair. The visuals complement a compelling journey.