ACT’s Lintel celebrates life, librarians

Oct 30

EXTENDED THROUGH NOV. 23!
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David Strathairn is a globe-trotting, mystery-solving librarian in Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel, a solo show at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Photos by Kevin Berne

What’s the haps in Hoofddorp, you ask? Well, for a small town in Holland, things are pretty dull, actually, thanks for asking. The good news is they’ve got a heck of a library in Hoofddorp, complete with the Dewey decimal system and time-stamped check-out cards and everything. We know this because a former librarian – we never find out his name – desperately wants to tell us about a life-changing adventure that was triggered by something that happened on an ordinary day on the job at the library.

It seems an overdue book made its way into the overnight bin (which is NOT supposed to be for overdue books, but it happens). But as our librarian was fussing (as librarians are wont to do), he discovered something interesting: this little Baedeker’s was 113 years overdue. If the book was returned in 1986 (as we’re told it was), that means the book was checked out in 1873. Adding to the intrigue, the book was checked to someone whose name is indicated only by an initial: A.

Tormented by his inability to fine the irresponsible book checker-outer, Librarian turns his focus to the notes in the margins of the book and to a laundry claim ticket he finds tucked in the pages that turns out to be a from a London outfit. Having never ventured out of his home country, Librarian can’t resist the urge to do a little exploring. And once he finds a pair of unclaimed trousers (never cleaned because of their deplorable condition), the adventure begins in earnest.

So goes Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel, a solo drama now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. The inestimable David Strathairn is the Librarian, complete with mild Dutch accent (he sounds a little like Tim Conway’s Mr. Tudball on the “Carol Burnett Show”) and the growing enthusiasm of globe-trotting storyteller on a mission to discover the elusive A.

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It’s a journey that takes our humble fussbudget to China, Australia, America (where he does some adorable swing dancing in New York) and Germany among other places, all of which he conveys to us through an intermittent slide show complete with music he plays on an old cassette recorder. It’s actually charming to watch a talented librarian – depicted here as sort of a superhero with mad research skills – get so excited about finally stepping into real life.

It’s when his sleuthing starts spanning centuries that I started losing interest. There’s a suggestion that A could be the mythical Wandering Jew – a cobbler who taunted Jesus on his way to his crucifixion and was condemned to walk the Earth forever – and that means there’s no real solution to the central mystery (though it is amusing to think of Ahasuerus checking out a Baedeker’s in Hoofddorp).

Director Carey Perloff’s production also threw me off balance. The show begins with the Librarian taking the stage (Nina Ball’s marvelous set design crams all kinds of theatrical junk, from costumes to props to chandeliers to barely visible backdrops), addressing his audience and telling them he’s here for, as the play’s subtitle puts it, “an impressive presentation of lovely evidences.” On his fact-finding journeys, he has accumulated papers and items, all of which he has meticulously tagged and numbered. He occasionally shares his slides and plays his tape recorder, but mainly he tells his story.

But then he starts finding pieces of evidence in tucked-away places around the stage. And soon, there are lighting and music cues that he’s not controlling. So what begins as a real-life lecture demonstration becomes a fully designed theatrical presentation of which the Librarian is only a part (not the sole focus nor the master of the story).

Underneath the Lintel is a sweet, slightly sappy existentialist musing that ultimately takes the long view of time and the universe and man’s conversely important and insignificant place in it. Pondering such things is never a waste of time, though this production, in spite of Strathairn’s abundant charms, has the power to make 95 minutes feel longer. The end should be an epiphany, but it’s less profound, more pleasant, and that’s not quite enough for such an awfully big adventure.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel continues an extended run through Nov. 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. Tickets are $20-$140 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

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