Travels With The Obsessive Librarian
By Cynthia Citron
How long do you keep an overdue library book on your nightstand before you get around to returning it?
Three days? Two weeks? How about 113 years?
That’s the mystery that confronts the inimitable Arye Gross, who plays the nameless Librarian in playwright Glen Berger’s “Underneath the Lintel,” now unraveling at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse.
At first curious, then obsessed with the question of how a Baedecker Travel Guide could be dropped in the library’s night-time Return slot after 113 years, the Librarian begins to search for clues. After all, the subtitle of this play is “An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidence.”
True. It IS impressive. Also inscrutable.
The Librarian’s search quickly uncovers the book’s check-out slip, signed by A. That’s a capital A followed by a period, which the Librarian adds to the blackboard on which he’s written a number of dates, and to which he keeps adding clues.
Then, lost in the pages of the book, he finds a laundry receipt for a pair of trousers left 75 years earlier in an establishment in China and never retrieved. Impulsively, he decides to go to China to retrieve the trousers and find his next clue.
The next clue is a receipt for a voyage to London that he finds in a pocket of the trousers. And so he’s off to London. And then to Bonn, Germany, where someone calls him a “dirty Jew” and he goes to see a stage play, “Les Miserables.”
Then, back in London, he rides on a tram in which a man and his dog refuse to sit down, but keep walking up and down the aisle. Putting two and nothing together, he determines that the dog’s name is Sabrina.
But on a visit to the estate of Thomas Wright, the Lord of Darby, he learns that the dog’s name is spelled Zebrina, which is the name of a house plant and vine also called “The Wandering Jew.”
In a long monologue he explains that the Wandering Jew is a myth. And so is God.
He sees Yeshua, the son of God, carrying his cross, and identifies with him, feeling that, like Yeshua, he himself will not be allowed to die.
He returns to China and sees “Les Miserables” again, and then in New York he sees it once more.
In New York he is trying to find a woman named Esther Gelfand, who many years earlier had written him a love letter. Discovering that she had moved to Australia, he hurries there only to find that she had died 126 years earlier.
These are some of the bare facts of this story. Interspersed are the Librarian’s metaphysical ruminations on life and death and what it all means and the Wandering Jew and other mysteries.
And how one leaves a mark to remind the future that “I was here!” To which the answer seems to be, “All is forgiven because all is forgotten.”
This abstruse production, directed by Steven Robman, has Arye Gross wandering around frantically on a set by Se Hyun Oh that is unrecognizable as a library.
There are no books in the bookcase and in addition to ladders and the blackboard and a screen on which are projected beautiful pictures from each country the Librarian visits, there are random piles of junk, coiled tubing, and sitting on top of a high piece of furniture, a collection of large orange paper balloons from China.
Arye Gross received a very deserved standing ovation for his grueling 100-minute rant. But the play itself was exhausting to follow, with its side digressions and introduction to individuals you never got to know except from the Librarian’s limited perspective.
I find it fortunate that this confusing review will be published on Thanksgiving, because who reads the newspaper on Thanksgiving anyway?!
Saved by the turkey!