Granted, a one-man play about a Dutch librarian – a play that contains zero Christmas carols, jingle bells or cute children – is a tough sell at this time of year.
Yet if you want to give yourself a gift this season, go see “Underneath the Lintel,” this funny, entertaining and surprisingly deep play by Glen Berger, directed with fine nuance by Damon Abdallah.
You may not be able to unravel all of its absurdist metaphysical puzzles. Is it about the existence of God? Or just about an overdue library book? But you will, without a doubt, see a tour de force comic performance by Reed McColm.
We first see the Librarian walking onstage cautiously, clutching an old satchel to his chest. He has rented this little auditorium, evidently, to give what he has titled “An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences.” This is a foretaste of the Librarian’s shaky grasp of English, his pompous ambitions and his grandiose obsession – all of which are set off against his mousy demeanor.
Think of him as a Dutch Casper Milquetoast. He stops and starts nervously, he holds up a tentative finger, he even sometimes skips across the stage in a parody of nerdy excitement.
McColm, the master of the Jack Benny pause, uses that skill to particularly good effect as he gets dozens of laughs strictly through impeccable timing.
Take, for example, this line about having to travel to China: “Me! Who has had Hunan chicken only once … (long pause) and had the runs for a week.”
And his “Impressive Presentation”? It’s about the fact that he found an old Baedeker’s travel guidebook in the library’s return bin – 113 years overdue.
This offends him as a librarian – such flouting of the rules must not be tolerated! – and it also intrigues him as a fussy obsessive. He simply must get to the bottom of this mystery.
I am more convinced than ever that McColm has the purest theatrical instincts of any actor in the region. In less talented hands, this quirky play might come off as simply a little odd. Yet McColm, who could infuse comic meaning into reading the weather report, turns this into an often hilarious, occasionally heartbreaking, portrait of a little man going slowly and completely off the rails.
His “lovely evidences” are items like old laundry tickets, tram tickets and scraps of centuries-old journals. They lead him to become convinced that he is on the trail of a mythical figure. I won’t give it away, although I can say this myth that has both Biblical and European medieval roots. And you may or may not be familiar with it.
It doesn’t matter, because by the end of “Underneath the Lintel,” I was convinced this play is not about that myth at all. It’s about the Librarian and his own solitary, loveless life.
The Librarian paces restlessly, endlessly across the stage. Some people are fated to wander unhappily through life forever.