A middle-aged librarian, steeped in the rituals and routine of procedural bureaucracy, arrives at work one day to find an overdue book has been returned, but placed incorrectly in the 'overnight slot'. Irritated, the fastidious librarian examines the offending book, a travel guide, to discover that it's also overdue - by a mere 113 years! Now I am only too willing to admit to having had considerable library fines, particularly in my disorganised youth, but even my tardiness pales into insignificance in comparison!
This incident is the starting point for this one man, one act play, and is also a kind of take-off point for the librarian too. An intriguing mystery morphs into an obsession that ends up with the librarian losing the only thing he really has in life - his job - but gaining something more valuable: getting a little closer to what matters in life. In essence, this play is a journey of self-discovery.
The format for 'Underneath The Lintel' is that the librarian is giving us a kind of lecture in a bare, clinical room in the basement of an anonymous public building - maybe a school or even a public library. Equipped with a 'box of scraps' – his evidence - he starts to relate the 'twisty, mystery of a tale' concerning what happened after he found the returned, overdue book and started doing some 'digging'. First off, he discovers that the book was loaned to someone simply called "A." with a post office box in China as their address. Later, while thumbing through the dog-eared travel guide, the librarian turned detective discovers a laundry ticket dated 1913. Now totally hooked on finding out more about the person who borrowed the book, he applies to his superiors for permission to go on 'library business' to London, but is refused. At first he sulks, but then feigns illness to get sick leave in order to make the trip. More surprising revelations about the mystery book-borrower duly follow, as the librarian criss-crosses the globe in his footsteps. But as the librarian's journey continues, we come to understand more about him than the person he's trying to track down.
Richard Schiff, best known perhaps for his long-running role in the White House based TV series 'The West Wing', provides a librarian who is at once both charming and engaging, and thanks to a dry, unassuming sense of humour, wholly captures our empathy. Schiff's librarian has knowledge, resilience and depth of character. A simple, yet complex man he's increasingly beset by grief and regret, tinged with anger.
Written by Glen Berger, 'Underneath The Lintel' has already enjoyed considerable success in the USA and several other countries besides. It's original New York run was hit by the traumatic events of 9/11 since the theatre was close to 'ground zero' and had to provide sleeping accommodation for emergency crews.
Berger himself took on the role of the librarian in the original production, and also stepped in for a further 100 performances when his actor fell ill. He subsequently rewrote some of the play in the light of his experiences.
In this version, Shiff's performance is undoubtedly a powerful and moving portrayal, amply and ably enhanced with sensitive direction by Maria Mileaf. But Berger's fluid script provides genuinely compelling story-telling which draws us relentlessly into the intriguing detective plot in order to examine much larger themes.
If there's a strong message coming this play, it's maybe that we can't 'turn the clock back', however much we might like to with hindsight. But it's also about 'making a mark' or leaving an impression of our ephemeral existence on the vast, unfathomable depths of time and space. Like the person he seeks, Shiff's librarian carves 'I was here' in his desk when he's sacked from his library job, and regrets the missed opportunity of acquiring a soul-mate in his youth. When he says 'Would you recognise a miracle when you saw one?' he's not talking about the kind that raises the dead, but the simpler miracles of human relationships that often seem ordinary and are generally undervalued. Thought-provoking stuff.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "awful...stupefyingly dull." ALICE JONES for THE INDEPENDENT says, "More than capable of holding the audience rapt for 90 minutes, he [Richard Schiff] displays a light comic touch alongside the quiet desperation of an insignificant man in search of significance." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Absorbing...Schiff draws us into the stories...with a performance that has its moments of passion, its patches of wry humour — and, best of all, its sense of wonder discovered and shared." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIUMES says, "It is obvious Schiff is doing a great deal of acting here, none of it good." LYN GARDNER for the GUARDIAN says, "Schiff delivers, but, like the play, he never startles." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "One of those rare pieces that keeps you enthralled throughout."