“Underneath the Lintel” is an agreeable goose chase about a librarian perplexed by a returned item that was 113 years overdue. Who had it all that time? What can such century-hopping mean?
This bookish 85-minute monologue by Glen Berger has been produced widely since its debut in 2001; the Round House Theatre did it here in 2003. A smart new staging (with Paul Morella as the anxious librarian) is alternating in repertory at Alexandria’s MetroStage with another one-man show, “The Thousandth Night,” about a 1943 French actor subtly telling protest tales against the rising Nazi tide.
“Underneath the Lintel” is the more cosmic piece, but the plays have two things in common. Both are quests for purpose, and both are yarn-spinners peppered with anecdotes and compact adventures.
In “The Thousandth Night,” the actor feverishly tells stories to keep from being sent to a concentration camp; it’s life or death. In “Lintel,” the librarian hardly knows what he’s chasing. The returned book, an old Baedeker’s travel guide, contains a 1913 laundry ticket from London. Once our Dutch librarian treks to England and fetches the garment, one artifact leads to another, all over the globe.
As the brown-suited librarian, Morella is an excellent guide — addled and intrigued and with a wide capacity for wonder. This character wants explanations; the play is his lecture, as he’s rented out the hall for a one-night only attempt to share what he’s found on this existential scavenger hunt.
He’s not neat about it: The stage is littered with suitcases, books and papers. The set, an adaptation of James Kronzer’s rail-station design for “Thousandth Night,” includes a slide projector and chalkboards, visual aids so the librarian can illustrate on the fly. Like a monomaniacal yet colorful professor, Morella paces through the debris and teases out wispy connections. The hints lead toward the mythical wandering Jew, who once stood safely in his own doorway (underneath the lintel) and, in self-protection, turned away Jesus.
Berger’s wandering, prayerful play is not grippingly flashy or notably wise, but it finally snaps together through its earnest intentions — and because Morella and director John Vreeke play a clean theatrical game. As he does in “The Thousandth Night,” Vreeke — apparently allergic to any shred of synthetic warmth or dread — banishes treacle from the menu. The capable design of a cluttered set and low lights creates a thoughtful mood while avoiding big emotional cues. You either find the librarian’s question about existence dramatic, or you don’t. That’s faith.
By Glen Berger. Directed by John Vreeke. Lights, Alexander Keen; sound design, Robert Garner. About 85 minutes. In repertory with “The Thousandth Night” through May 25 at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, Va. Tickets $50, or $88 for both plays. Call 703-548-9044 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.