All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In it, a bureaucrat who has rarely left his hometown of Hoofddorp, the Netherlands, retains his provincial ideas and parochial naivety while embarking on an adventurous world journey to hunt down the miscreant who owes a hefty fine on a 113-year overdue library book returned, with writing in its margins, in cowardly fine-dodging fashion through the library’s night depository slot.
Receiving the long-absent volume, a Baedeker guide to Europe from 1873, interests the middle-aged librarian who finds it even more fascinating than the prospect of moving from his clerk position to head of acquisitions, a post for which he has a sneaky competitive rival.
Following library procedure, as described in Glen Berger’s well-constructed and witty play, the librarian goes to library records to see if he can find a name or address for the dilatory borrower. What he finds intrigues him more than a loan from a century ago being returned. The member doesn’t have a full name, only an initial, A., and his address is a post office box in China. The librarian wonders how such a person even got a card.
Berger’s genius in is blending the innocence of the librarian, who is given to silly jokes and wonders at events and happenstances that wouldn’t faze someone more worldly, with the obsessive journey he is about to undertake by following clues to the Baedeker borrower’s identity. The librarian frets about mundane things like vacation time, business expenses, and space taken up in the office refrigerator. His quest is more practical than romantic even when he travels the Earth to hunt down the fine scofflaw. Yet his curiosity matches ours, and his discoveries and insights lead to a wonderful mystery with an hilariously inventive result.
Berger is a teasing writer. He’ll lay down clues and know his audience will beg mentally for the librarian to see them to their conclusion. He is also a master of the three-pronged joke in which the last in a series of points will end in nonsense or some turn of speech that characterizes the librarian. Berger also blends history and a sure sense of literature, Biblical and otherwise, with a knack for silly contemporary social commentary. (Well, contemporary for 2001, when “Underneath the Lintel” debuted , and for 1986, when it is set.) His librarian, for instance, will take time out in places that have theaters to see a show that always turns out to be “Les Misérables,” on which he walks out the first time he sees in London because he is “miserable enough” but grows to like as he sees it in subsequent cities in foreign languages (which, come to think of it, English is to the Dutch librarian).
Berger gives his librarian a sense of humor, which is pedestrian and childish in nature, sort of that of a little boy who thinks he’s being naughty by taking an extra day off from school.
It all works because everything in “Underneath the Lintel” is tinged with humor, sometimes delightfully offbeat, and because the adventure the librarian experiences to track his fine-jumper is entertaining on its own. Berger has been shrewdly theatrical in putting his puzzle together. Some of the clues the librarian finds lead to hysterical results, such as a pair of trousers left at a London laundry in the early 20th century being there in 1986, unlaundered because the pants were in poor condition, and the launderers didn’t want to run the risk of having to pay damages if they inadvertently destroyed them completely.
A ticket in the library book leads to the pants, which contain another clue in their pocket. Then, of course, the Chinese post office box, from a completely different time in Chinese history, needs investigation, Before the librarian is finished with his perambulations, he has exhausted his vacation time, lost his job, used all of his savings, and visited cities all over the world, most notably Jerusalem, where a rarely noted Biblical passage leads to Berger’s title.
In the end, the librarian knows much about his wild goose. Including his identity. But that is the surprise of the play, so even a spoiler like I, won’t go into that. Let’s just say it’s delicious when you find it out.
“Underneath the Lintel” takes the form of a touring lecture the librarian gives in halls and auditoriums around the world. He is determined that people should know about his discovery and the rudeness of letting a library book remain overdue for 113 years.
At Hedgerow Theatre, the actor playing the librarian is Christopher Coucill, a versatile performer who brings in variety of entertainment skills to this role.
Coucill at first is conspiratorial in telling the librarian’s audience about the delinquent Baedeker. You can see the glee in his face as he goes through exhibits and uses a blackboard to illustrate his points. He simultaneously conveys the provincial worker bee who labors at the same job and kvetches over library gossip, such as who will get a promotion and who put a book back on the wrong shelf.
Coucill’s librarian is a man who can take deep and abiding pride in having given a lecture on the Dewey Decimal System to a group of avid listeners. (I bet.) He is also a novice traveler who takes mundane pictures and sticks to the common trail unless a clue to the Baedeker borrower takes him somewhere less touristy and more exotic.
Coucill’s greatest feat is in sharing the wonder and mystery of his compulsive detective work with the Hedgerow audience. You feel the thrill the librarian gets as he uncovers something new. You also giggle with Coucill when the librarian loses his way during his presentation or makes a neurotic side comment Berger endearingly includes in the dialogue. Berger loves little comic sidetracks to show how a mind works, especially when someone is speaking somewhat extemporaneously or believes he is witty even though his audiences sees through his façade.
Berger’s jokes come clearly through Coucill’s reading. “Underneath the Lintel” provides lot of laughs, both with and at the librarian.
Coucill also captures the eye-opening experience and incredible discovery Berger chronicles so comically. The librarian’s revelation becomes ours, and it involves no less than the cornerstones of two traditions that intersect in a single yet consequential instance. Leave it to Berger to have the librarian’s journey lead to such an interesting spot on the map and reap new entertainment out of an ancient legend.
Coucill has been doing “Underneath the Lintel” for a while. I’ve seen his performance twice before, in Wilmington and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. He directs his own show, and he has the librarian’s persona down pat without a hint of self-consciousness.
Coming to Hedgerow is a rite of passage of sorts for Coucill because his parents met while studying there under Hedgerow’s foresighted founder, Jasper Deeter.
“Underneath the Lintel” runs through Saturday, April 25, at the Hedgerow Theatre, 64 N. Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. “Underneath the Lintel” performs in repertory with a musical revue, “Forget Your Troubles,” Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday, April 25. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by calling 610-565-4211 or by visiting www.hedgerowtheatre.org.