What if you went on a wildgoose chase and the goose turned out to be God?
In Underneath the Lintel, playwright Glen Berger has composed a comic spiritual quest, a vaudeville routine for harried clown. It’s a play of nervous laughter — of Reed McColm, the solo actor performing it; and of those of us in the audience, out in the dark, who start laughing nervously while wondering whether our lives have any meaning. (We’re willing to laugh at the possibility of our insignificance. But not for long.)
In McColm’s one-man performance — amusing, flawed, halting, eventually moving — a lot of people will fi nd themselves reflected: reference librarians and world travelers, Jews and Christians, vaudeville comedians and mystery lovers. What they see in the mirror is themselves, laughing nervously.
McColm’s Dutch librarian appears to us at first from out of the shadows, anxiously emerging from behind a blackboard, clutching his suitcase of “evidences,” halting and too deferential. Will he be soft-voiced and nervous all night? We could be in for a long couple of hours.
Right away, there are references to death and transience, erasure, the puniness of our lives. Then there’s the nervous laughter. This is a comedy?
While rummaging through the overnight bin, you see, the Librarian has found a book that’s 113 years overdue. (Much smacking of the forehead.) Inside are clues that lead him to a village in China, a shtetl in Poland, a dry cleaner’s in London.
It becomes an obsessive historical quest that Berger’s script manages to make, in succession, ridiculous, unlikely, questionable, probable, profound.
There’s much that’s delightful in McColm’s performance — the librarian’s love of trivia; the funny little skips and jigs; the way he breaks down the fourth wall and our expectations; the way his face brightens at the prospect of going on a big trip. And there’s even more: McColm’s self-satisfied little shake of the head (for when the Librarian has unearthed a tidbit of knowledge); the glasses on the end of the nose; the index finger held up for attention; the crucial, tagged piece of evidence held triumphantly aloft. The opening-night audience loved the I’ve-been-naughty-youcaught-me tone in accounts of library-rule violations. And when the big reveal was made — when the Librarian revealed the identity of the character he’s been hunting down — his audience was quiet, motionless, intent.
But there is also much that McColm could improve. His initial nervousness makes us nervous; so do Berger’s references to death and decay. There’s too much fussing and dithering. In several instances, McColm undermined jokes by pausing while grasping for the punch lines. And there was an accent of indeterminate origin that went away for long stretches and then returned, unannounced.
The Librarian should be frenetic: the auditorium, supposedly, is rented for just this one night, and he has this fantastic story to tell, and he’s taken a huge chance by leaving his job and going to places that a stayat-home, bookish fellow never thought he would go. There needs to be frenzied, commanding mania, nearly from the outset. But director Damon Abdallah and McColm have chosen too tentative a path for the opening.
Fortunately, Act Two is funnier. McColm makes his pedantic fellow more obsessed, more despairing and more defiant — all of which ratchets up the performance’s energy level and interest. And while there are some second-act passages — regret over lost love, raging against an unjust God — that seem unprepared for, there’s also a haunting description of revelry in the face of concentration-camp horror.
By the conclusion, we sense how close we are both to the Librarian and to the mythical chap he’s been pursuing. Both funny and sad, Berger’s play taps into the mixed existential mood — just as Charlie Chaplin and Samuel Beckett once did, just as McColm will once his act finds its groove.
Underneath the Lintel — an intellectual quest, but with jokes! — continues through Dec. 12 at Interplayers, 174 S. Howard St., on Wednesdays- Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, and Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm. Tickets: $15- $21; $12-$19, seniors; $10, students. Visit interplayers. com or call 455-PLAY.