BWW Reviews: MetroStage's UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL Is Brilliant, Forces the Audience to Think
MetroStage, in Alexandria, Virginia, is currently presenting two one-actor plays in repertory, both directed by John Vreeke: Glen Berger's UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL and Carol Wolf's THE THOUSANDTH NIGHT. Carolyn Griffin, MetroStage's producing artistic director, emphasizes what she calls the "intriguing compatibility and connection between them." (BroadwayWorld's review of THE THOUSANDTH NIGHT appears here).
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL is masterfully acted by Paul Morella, who even manages an identifiable Dutch accent. The play itself is extraordinary, and requires a great deal of mental effort on the part of the audience to follow the goings-on. MetroStage describes the show as a "metaphysical detective story that is funny and fierce, quirky and smart" in which "[m]ultiple clues and a world-wide search ... ultimately decode the meaning of life." Maybe ... and maybe not, depending on the perspective of the audience member - particularly the individual's religious and spiritual views.
Merriam Webster's on-line dictionary describes a "lintel," pronounced much like "lentil," as "a piece of wood or stone that lies across the top of a door or window and holds the weight of the structure above it." www.Merriam-Webster.com . Knowing that the sole character in the play attempts to solve a historical mystery, I assumed that the a key clue would turn up "underneath the lintel," hence the title. Not at all. The play eventually defines the term and elucidates the meaning of the title, but, by then, the story has taken a sharp turn away from what at first seems to be an ordinary mystery: Why has someone returned a travel guide to a Dutch library 113 years after the due date, and why has that someone slipped it into the overnight slot reserved for on-time returns?
The production is brilliant in every way, from the performance of Paul Morella, who plays the librarian - actually a former librarian - to the deliberate disorganization of the set, strewn with old-fashioned suitcases from which the librarian can undoubtedly instantaneously extract exactly the document he is seeking. Mr. Morella, who is known to DC area audiences for, among other projects, his solo version of "A Christmas Carol," and his motion picture and television appearances, perfectly portrays the nebbishy librarian with so little intellectual curiosity about everything but history that he has never "wasted" his vacation by leaving Holland. At first, his big excitement in life comes from arguing with a rival who wants the promotion that the unnamed protagonist is seeking and with defending the amount of room his lunch takes up in the employee refrigerator - until someone has the temerity to deposit a century overdue library book in the overnight slot. Even then, at first, the librarian's reaction is to locate the descendants of the borrower to levy the large fine that has accrued in 113 years. Mr. Morella manages to make us care about this unnamed, damaged man, even as the librarian violates social mores by talking about bodily functions, albeit in scientific terms, and makes clear his utter incompetence in surviving in the world.
At the beginning, I assumed that the librarian suffered from Asperger's, or a similar syndrome - he could recall an event from almost any day in history, but he was unfamiliar with LES MISERABLES (both the musical, and apparently, the Victor Hugo novel, which is almost shocking for a librarian). Later, I wondered if his problem was obsessive-compulsive disorder. Still later, I wondered whether he had had a problem at all, and was instead responding to other-worldly messages. By the end of the play, I concluded that the librarian did probably suffer from some form of disability, but I could not figure out whether it was at the beginning or the end, or both.
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL has its comic moments, most of them dark, but it is no comedy;
I certainly would not recommend it for those seeking a pleasant piece of fluff. An audience member is likely to leave puzzling over every piece of evidence that the librarian presents, trying to determine whether it adds up to something important or to a coincidence manufactured by a disordered mind that sees web-like connections in the disparate, unrelated pieces of detritus generated during ordinary lives. The play reminds me of studying Talmud, where opposing viewpoints are preserved for the ages, because all are worth considering and all lead down new paths. There are no definitive answers in Talmud - only more questions. This play is like that - the more one peels away the layers of the onion, the more come to the surface.
Others involved in the production are James Kronzer (scenic design), Ivania Stack (costume design), Robert Garner (sound design) and Alexander Keen (lighting design). William E. Cruttenden III and Marne Anderson are the stage managers.
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL will appear through May 25th. Tickets are $50 for each of the two repertory shows separately, or $88 for both. Call 703-548-9044 to order or order online at www.boxofficetickets.com . MetroStage's Web site is www.MetroStage.org . The theater is located at 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria, VA 22314, with the parking lot entrance located on 3rd Street. Street parking is also available.
Photo Credit: Chris Banks