Part Monty Python, part Da Vinci Code, part Fiddler on the Roof, and part Albert Camus having an existential crisis, Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel is an engrossing one-man detective story, told here at Capital Fringe by a master actor giving a tour de force performance. If you have room in your closing weekend schedule, you should not miss this.
In this show, Pat O’Brien (probably best known for the role of Mr. Dewey from Saved by the Bell) assumes the role of The Librarian, guiding the audience clue by clue through his efforts to unmask the identity of whoever returned a checked-out travel book that was due 123 years prior. But what starts out as an officious attempt to impose the fine of a lifetime delves slowly and methodically into a manic pursuit of the truth behind a supernatural legend, and finally to an existential exploration of the meager yet unique impact one lonely life can have on a universe large beyond our comprehension.
It’s hard to realize just how good Underneath the Lintel is until it’s over and you grasp where you are compared to where you started. That’s true of the play itself, which transitions seamlessly and inexorably from a curious, narrowly-focused detective story to an exploration of the most fundamental questions about life. But that brilliance is matched, if not exceeded, by O’Brien’s performance in the show’s lone role: each step is subtle, but in both appearance and demeanor he accomplishes a total transformation from a neat, properly dressed officious bureaucrat to a visibly sweaty and completely disheveled wanderer yearning for impossible answers to life’s basic questions.
Underneath the Lintel
Written by Glen Berger
Details and tickets
This sounds tragic, and in many ways, it is. But there’s much more to it. In a written afterword, Berger tells us that his play is a theatrical expression of klezmer and Yiddish music, which has what he calls “a certain finding-joy-despite-all-evidence-to-the-contrary” quality. Both the play and the performance convey this thought: there are good jokes and physical humor throughout, and there is even joy to be squeezed out of the play’s deepest emotional nadirs as we are taught to appreciate and celebrate the ephemeral nature of existence.
Both the story and O’Brien’s performance are riveting, humorous, melancholy, joyous, and thought-provoking. This is an act that will stay with you long after you leave the theater.
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