Underneath the Lintel

Glen Berger
Duchess Theatre
(2007)

Richard Schiff in Underneath the Lintel

There is little doubt that without the presence of Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler from the cult TV show West Wing) Underneath the Lintel would never have made it on to a West End stage.

As a general principle, the British are not nearly as enamoured of solo shows as the Americans. This was cruelly demonstrated when Jefferson Mays brought across the New York smash hit, I Am My Own Wife, and it disappeared without trace.

Underneath the Lintel is possibly even less accessible but the presence of the great man may be enough to sell out a small theatre, at least for a limited run. This play has certainly done well playing with over 450 performances Off-Broadway and appearances in 55 cities across eight countries.

For 90 minutes, Schiff plays a character known only as The Librarian who delivers a far from fluent lecture. This deliberately and regularly gets lost in its own byways, so much so that the subject is long forgotten before the final curtain falls.

Glen Berger's play is an existential comedy that eventually leads one to the conclusion that our possibly mad, possibly mildly autistic guide might be the reincarnation of The Wandering Jew, a man condemned by history to wander the world awaiting the second coming of the man he calls Yeshua.

This is certainly not apparent at the start, when the combination of a cod Dutch accent and a bad sound-system render this strange, very badly dressed man inaudible and unintelligible.

Once he gets into his stride, The Librarian begins telling a story about how and why he lost his job, having set off on a wild goose chase that becomes increasingly eccentric and eventually takes him around the world.

He is pretty mild mannered, as might befit an archetypal librarian. He is also ridiculously quirky and when he finds a Baedeker Guide that is 113 years overdue, sets out to track down the errant borrower in order to deliver what must be a fine many times the value of the book.

Confusion piles on confusion, as the twitchy misfit makes quantum leaps when all logical avenues have been closed. This means that where a normal person would give up on the quest, The Librarian ventures to some far flung corner of the world and miraculously discovers the person or link that he was looking for - or more probably deludes himself into believing that he has.

Eventually, he roams across both time and space getting back to the messianic era before eventually and rather reluctantly returning to the present day.

With the assistance of director Maria Mileaf, Richard Schiff shows himself to be a talented character actor with good comic timing. Quite what West Wing fans will make of Underneath the Lintel remains to be seen though.

It is not a simple feelgood piece of drama or comedy and may divide those who believe that it presents an interesting intellectual challenge with echoes of Beckett or Pinter; and others less patient, who can only relate to the tedium of a listening to an eccentric man taking a lot of time to say nothing at all.

The truth is that the monologue is somewhere in between those polar opposites. Which ever side one takes, it is without doubt a very odd choice for a West End house, let alone as a star vehicle for a TV favourite.

Playing until 14th April

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for Underneath the Lintel

Reviewer: Philip Fisher