Book Crook

An overdue library tome triggers big ideas in Underneath the Lintel.

If you've ever carved your initials into a tree, or been tempted to, you know the feeling. We humans share a desire to leave a mark of our existence behind. This is the impulse that drives a nebbishy Dutch librarian on a globe-trotting quest in Glen Berger's Underneath the Lintel, now being produced by Cesear's Forum at Kennedy's in Playhouse Square.

The one-person play's central conceit is that the unnamed librarian has rented a hall and is presenting a lecture on his search for a person who returned a book that was overdue by 123 years. Appalled by this biblio-felony and eager to impose a fine of gargantuan proportions, our protagonist relates how he pursued one small clue after another on a journey that took him to London, China, Australia, and back in time to 37 AD. Employing a few projected slides, a blackboard, and a suitcase full of clues, the fidgety book clerk tells us he seeks "to prove one life and justify another."

The philosophical core of the fable is finally reached when the fussbudget traces the book's borrower back to the moment when Jesus stopped to rest in an archway (under the lintel) of a cobbler's shop on his way to his crucifixion. Christ was turned away by the cobbler, and Jesus then condemned the man to a deathless and rootless existence -- thus he became the Wandering Jew of biblical legend. Clearly, playwright Berger has big issues on his mind in this play, dealing with a small man's newly ignited passion for life and hunger for an identity.

Ironically true to its title, however, this production constantly teeters on the threshold without ever firmly charging off in any direction. This is due to a script that is almost too clever for its own good and a performance by the lone actor, Joe Gunderman, that never fully engages the imagination. At various times Berger's writing is witty, insightful, and oddly informative (we learn how foxes are brought out of their dens during hunts), but it never generates the momentum one would expect from a man compelled by such a quixotic obsession. This gives the monologue a meandering feel that doesn't serve the material well. Onstage by himself for 90 minutes, Gunderman illumines facets of his stereotyped character, and is quite funny as he relates some of the eccentricities of his workplace (about a previous overdue book that was returned after three months, he notes primly "We got over it, but we were not amused"). But several of his techniques are apparent (some beats forced, some mannerisms manufactured), and one never has the sense that this is a real person, however odd his persona.

Director Fred Sternfeld does well to convey Berger's convoluted story line in a comprehensible way. But the script is too self-consciously proud of its own thematic aspirations to just relax, spin a good yarn, and let the audience find the meanings on its own.