Underneath the Lintel by Glen Berger. Directed by Andrew Volkoff.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Glynnis Bell as The Librarian: photo: Kevin Sprague
Do you remember how your great-aunt used to ramble, telling one story, then another and never finishing the first one while she got you all entangled in the second one and just when you found you were really interested she changed the subject, referring to the unfinished first story, but actually moving on to another new one? Or maybe it was an uncle who told wonderful tales but when he got to the kicker, that final moment youíd been waiting for, he took a drink of wine and never spoke again? Or maybe he changed languages for the last paragraph - broke into Yiddish or Polish or colloquial French?
Onstage at Barrington Stage Companyís Stage 2 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, just such a relative is holding forth on the subject of A-period, a man who returned a library book after 113 years. She is a Librarian, a maiden-lady who suffered through one great romance, or at least it seems great as she relates incidents from it without ever telling us much about what really happened, because that isnít the tale sheís telling. Instead she is relating the details of a quest that took her around the world, cost her not just her job, but all of its related benefits and probably a whole lot of her sanity. She has a suitcase with the evidences she has collected along the way. Her trained mind has turned from returned books to missing pieces of a global puzzle. She has become obsessed with discovering the truth about Man, God, the world and the relationships among those three.
Obsession is really what this play is about. A guidebook borrowed from the Hoofddorp Library in 1873 is shoved through the overnight book slot and the Librarian (she has no name) set out to fine the borrower who waited until 1986 to bring it back. An absurd concept, you think, but as time goes on and her obsession takes hold we hear the theory that the borrower, whose only name is A-period (a dot at the end of the A) may well be the legendary Wandering Jew. Obsession- - -Go!
This play has had a life, not unlike that of the Librarian. It has had several productions, mostly with men playing the single part of the Librarian. It ran more than a year in New York. I donít know how it would be to hear a man do this role now that Iíve seen Glynis Bell play her.
Opening night the play took just a hair under ninety minutes to draw to its awkward conclusion: the quest continues. Itís portrayal of eventual madness seemed drawn on sketch paper, thin, translucent and even transparent at times. Her personal trials and tribulations at home became welcome respites from her quest-consciousness, even though they were simplistic and predictable: competition for a better job; the loss of her one romance; her learning to lie to her boss and its inevitable consequences.
Ms. Bell is wonderful in the role, even if she cannot sustain the Dutch accent with which she begins the play. She and Andrew Volkoff, the director, have given a dynamic life to the play, as she moves here and there, skitters, chills, shivers, brims, shines, undulates, shouts in triumph and cringes in pain. From her timid entrance in full light to her bizarrely flamboyant exit through the audience Bell and Volkoff have kept her in almost constant motion.
The set, a messy auditorium platform, is wildly realistic yet cautiously impressionistic. Brian Prather brings it life with things we want to see used but they remain just things. Jeff Davis his lit this space in such a way that we never lose sight of the mess around the Librarian as we discover the mess inside her. Every once in a while she seems to fade from view as he underlights a space she inhabits. And in those moments we see her more clearly for having to look just a bit harder at her, hoping she is still there within her body and her mind.
This isnít going to please a lot people. It will confuse more than it will illuminate as its peculiar story is related. But it isnít her story that we are meant to see, I believe. I t is what happens to someone who obsesses at this level and breaks down in front of a roomful of strangers.
She actually bemoans the size of the audience, but if the space were larger and fully occupied she might be forced to hold herself together longer. The Librarian is not smart enough to know that her sanity is in jeopardy and that her choices bring that loss ever closer. What she does know is amazing and what she may yet learn is all she has, now and forever. She is a picture of any of us who prefer the quest to a sandwich so this is a cautionary tale. Take notes.
Underneath the Lintel plays at BSCís Stage 2, located at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA through July 26. For tickets and information go their website at www.barringtonstageco.org or call the box office at 413-236-8888.