Underneath the Lintel

Even the third time around, Underneath the Lintel remains a rich and rewarding theatre experience. This one-man play, written by Glen Berger, directed by Randy White, and currently performed by David Chandler, is a treasure trove. The mystery that propels it—which will not be revealed here—has the capacity to engross even if you know how it comes out; like a great detective story, Lintel offers enormous satisfaction in its ingenious plotting and the way that clues and hints are laid out in advance of a climactic unveiling.

But there's more to Underneath the Lintel than its terrific story, and that's what makes it worth coming back to. I need to digress long enough to tell you something about the show, and then I'll talk about why this play is one of our contemporary theatre's little miracles—one that I can proudly state that I recognized as soon as I saw it.

When you take your seat at Soho Playhouse, you'll notice two things that immediately point to the structure of this surprising play. To your right is a classroom-style chalkboard, on which is written, in very large print, "An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences." To your left is a screen, on which, as you expect, will be projected a variety of slides—some of those aforementioned evidences, in fact. Before the lights go down, a rumpled and slightly sad-looking fellow walks onto the stage, a battered old valise in one hand and a couple of oversized reference books in the other: more evidences.

Evidences of what, you are asking, quite reasonably. Well, of course I can't tell you precisely—you must see Underneath the Lintel to find out. I will say this: this gentleman is a librarian by profession, from a small town in Holland. One day, in the course of his daily routine, he came upon a Baedeker travel guide in the library's book return slot that was 113 years overdue. Checked out in 1873, it found its way back in 1986. Who would return a book more than a century late? Intrigued, our hero searches for clues to the borrower's identity. He finds, inside the tattered volume, serving as a bookmark, a laundry claim ticket from London, England dated 1906. And library records give as the address of the transgressor a post office box in China.

Well, of course he's hooked; and so is the audience. What follows is part travelogue/part suspense drama/part philosophical roller-coaster ride as the intrepid librarian sets out to discover the identity of this mystery man. He proves a life, he tells us, and justifies another (his own) in the process, the "evidences" that he used to piece together this puzzle bearing tangible witness to both lives—lives that might otherwise have been forgotten or proven meaningless.

Which brings me back to my original thesis, which is that Underneath the Lintel, beyond the provocative mystery at its core, brims with insight and wisdom; it's worth seeing more than once because its message only gets deeper and denser each time around. This is a play that asks what life is worth and what life is for: Berger reminds us that wars and disasters kill millions of humans at a time and no one blinks an eye; yet each of those human lives mattered to somebody, or seemed to. Does each of our existences boil down, finally, to scratching on a wall, as Lintel's hero does as one point in the play, "I was here"?

Berger also trades in more spiritual questions. To solve any mystery takes not just facts, but also faith—we can have all the evidences in the world, but without an interpretative model to explain them, we ultimately won't have anything to believe in. Lintel is most fundamentally about finding that something to believe in: I think Berger may view this act as the most essential human one there is.

So there is much to nourish the head, the heart, and the soul in this remarkable play. Randy White's straightforward staging remains definitive, as far as I'm concerned. David Chandler, who is the current performer of Lintel, is exceptionally good; his work conveys deep and enormous understanding of the play's text and themes.

I called Lintel a miracle earlier in this review: that's an allusion to something in the script, but it's also quite true from a practical standpoint—more than a year after its opening, Underneath the Lintel is itself still here, working its particular magic on audiences seven times a week. Such endurance bespeaks something special. If you haven't seen Lintel, you should; and if you have, go again. I bet something unseen will be awakened within you as you watch this deceptively simple fable unfold.