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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Underneath the Lintel
Duchess Theatre         Spring 2007

Glen Berger's play is a moving small-scale drama, alternately touching, evocative, comic and ghostly, and offers a superb showcase for an actor who can communicate in quiet and subtle ways - in this case, Richard Schiff.

Schiff (yes, the guy from TV's West Wing) plays a small-town Dutch librarian who becomes fascinated by a book anonymously returned 113 years overdue.

One tiny clue after another - the old records of the original borrower, a laundry ticket used as a bookmark, a post office box address in China - takes him on a thoroughly uncharacteristic quest.

This little man who had almost never been outside his home town or done anything more assertive than 'inconspicuous sulking' finds himself travelling the world in search of this mystery.

And what he finds - aside from the fact that there seems to be no place in the world where Les Miserables is not playing - is either one of the great mystic figures of Western mythology* or a bunch of meaningless scraps of 'evidence' that prove nothing but his own obsessive delusion.

And, says the play, does it really matter? Something has taken this nonentity out of his nonexistence and made a man of him, given him a life for the first time, and given that life some meaning. That is real, whether the ghost he has been following is or is not.

(Don't bother with a dictionary. A lintel is the structural beam above a doorway. The play's title refers to a specific moment in the story, but also suggests the safest and most domestic of places, and the discovery that even there a life-changing event can take place.)

Richard Schiff and director Maria Mileaf have the courage to acknowledge that, even at his highest, this character is more than a little mad and ridiculous, and mine all the comedy in the role while gradually letting us appreciate the enormity (by his standards) of his adventure.

Even a couple of touches that seem at first mistakes - a silly accent and the reliance on a microphone - quickly become part of a fully thought-out and subtle characterisation that draws us in with its warmth and reality.

This play is not for fans of Les Mis. It is the very opposite of big and brassy. But those who can appreciate a quiet little drama-comedy, and acting that captures you with its small effects, will have a very satisfying ninety minutes here.

*Later note The Wandering Jew

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Underneath The Lintel - Duchess Theatre 2007

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