Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Comedy, drama, and mystery "Underneath the Lintel" at New Jewish Theatre

Photo: Eric Woolsey
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When I saw a somewhat condensed edition of Glen Berger’s 2001 one-character play “Underneath the Lintel” at the 2013 St. Lou Fringe Festival I was very much taken with its thought-provoking originality.  Now New Jewish Theater is presenting the full-length version—around 80 minutes in one act—and I'm still impressed.

"Underneath the Lintel" is the story of an obsessive and unnamed Librarian in a small Dutch town whose neatly ordered (if not terribly fulfilling) life is turned upside-down when a copy of a Baedeker travel guide turns up in the returns box one day.  It’s 113 years overdue, filled with notes in a variety of different languages (yet all apparently by the same hand), and the borrower is identified in the records only as “A.”  The Librarian’s attempt to track down the mysterious “A.” quickly turns into a globe-trotting manhunt that begins to take on supernatural overtones when it appears that “A.” might not be an ordinary human.

Photo: Eric Woolsey
The Librarian tells us this story in a vast flood of monologue, interspersed with presentations of an “impressive presentation of lovely evidences” culled during the hunt—a dry-cleaning ticket, an animal quarantine record, a letter, a photograph, a wax cylinder recording, a pair of tattered trousers.  We see slides of the places visited (every one of which had a production of “Les Miserables” running) with appropriate background music.  The Librarian even stops the fire hose of ideas and asides now and then to reflect on what it all means to the character's own life—and to ours.

When I first saw "Underneath the Lintel" in 2013 The Librarian was played brilliantly by TV veteran Pat O'Brien.  New Jewish is doing a revised version of the script in which the character is female, and once again the performance is exemplary.

Glynis Bell, whom you will no doubt recognize from her many appearances at The Rep, flawlessly inhabits the role of this eccentric and wildly loquacious character.  Hesitant and a bit timid at first, she turns visibly more animated as she becomes more enraptured with the details of her life-changing travels and discoveries—only to be stopped short by a painful recollection of a missed romantic opportunity from her earlier, more timid existence.

Photo: Eric Woolsey
It's a remarkable performance, and not just because it's such a spectacular feat of memorization.  The character has to shift gears more than once, sometimes rather abruptly, so the emotional range is wide.  Ms. Bell was always firmly "in the moment," though, grabbing and holding my attention throughout.  And her nuanced performance insured that the character's manifold eccentricities were endearing rather than annoying.

Kyra Bishop's drab classroom set is striking in its realism, all the way down to the exposed plumbing, and Michael Sullivan's lighting highlights shifts in mood without being too obvious about it.

Director Lana Pepper blocking and pacing are good, but her decision to have the background music performed by a strolling live musician (Will Stoll) rather than played from The Librarian's cassette recorder doesn't really work for me, even though his work is excellent.  The musician isn't in the script, so it seems weird that The Librarian doesn't acknowledge his existence, and it adds an element of artificial theatricality that feels unnecessary. 

"Underneath the Lintel" at New Jewish is a thoroughly captivating mix of comedy, drama, and fantasy.  The compelling and literate script offers plenty of food for thought, including implications about the nature of God that not everyone will find comfortable, and Ms. Bell's performance is a genuine gem.  The show runs through February 13 in the Wool Studio Theatre at the JCCA.  For more information, visit the web site.

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