"Underneath the Lintel"
Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
The extraordinary Mark Nelson manages to hold his audience in thrall for a 90-minute non-stop one-man performance. Fortunately for him, he has the right material with which to work. “Underneath the Lintel” is indeed a challenge for both actor and audience.
Playwright Glen Berger takes us on a wild ride through time and space. It all begins with an overdue library book—113 years overdue, as it turns out. One is reminded of “Seinfeld,” the TV segment in which a tough sleuth tracks down offenders and demands fines for overdue books. But Berger carries his little hero into realms of history, geography, philosophy, religion. Initially, “Lintel” is every bit as hilarious a romp as its TV counterpart, but soon moves beyond television’s limited scope, becoming both a mystery and a spiritual quest. Ultimately it is a search for God and for one’s place in the universe.
Nelson is first introduced as a fuddy-duddy little librarian preoccupied with trivia. Is there room for his lunch in the library’s communal ice box? Will he accept chocolates from a rival? But he soon moves on. He has rented a shabby space, posted notices, and, surrounded by what appears to be clutter, tells his story to the assembled guests.
The Librarian, in his petty bureaucratic style, is determined to find the borrower of the overdue book (a Baedeker guidebook). But he gradually begins to suspect that the offender is a mythic figure, some one who reaches far back in time. Each piece of evidence points to the next, sucking The Librarian ever more deeply into the search. He becomes so obsessed in this quest that he travels the world—of course losing his job along the way—but he grows steadily in stature. Long before The Librarian himself suspects the man’s identity, we become aware of whom he is. (But not to be revealed here!)
Nelson and Berger are partners in crime, working well under the sure hand of director Eric Ting and all three creating a hilarious and compelling piece. The talented Ting also uses slide projection to expand the play’s vision.
But all other elements are also in place—Craig Siebels’ quirky set design, Paul Whitaker’s moody lighting, as well as the effective costumes of Jessica Wegener and sound design of Corrine K. Livingston.
Not that this is an easy show to understand. Why, for instance, has the director chosen to gradually flood the stage, with water dripping from the ceiling with increasing intensity? What is the symbolism of the water? It is open to any one’s interpretation.
But this is indeed a piece which sets the intellectual juices flowing and keeps the viewer hooked from start to finish.
-- Irene Backalenick
May 18, 2006