Review Round-up: Critics Lost by Schiff’s Lintel?
Date: 13 February 2007
Richard Schiff, best-known for his multi award-winning performance as Toby Ziegler in TV’s The West Wing, makes his West End debut in the British premiere of Underneath the Lintel, a 90-minute monologue about a librarian’s quest to find the owner of a 113-year overdue book, which turns into a voyage of self-discovery.
Glen Berger’s award-winning play opened on Monday (12 February 2007, previews from 7 February) at the Duchess Theatre (See News, 21 Nov 2006). Directed by Maria Mileaf, this production won critical acclaim when it opened at Off-Broadway’s George Street Playhouse in early 2006. It’s booking until 14 April 2007 in London.
Overnight critics on the whole enjoyed Schiff’s performance, saying he gives a compelling portrayal of a man caught up in his new-found mission. However, the majority agreed that the play itself, like the journey it details, lost its way; they found themselves asking “are we nearly there, yet?”
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (2 stars) – “It may just be that Glen Berger’s 90-minute monologue will appeal to admirers of The Da Vinci Code… it is hard to see how a West End run of the play would be justified without the participation of Richard Schiff…. despite the jaunty ingratiation of Mr Schiff’s performance, unencumbered by false gestures or vocal trickery, the play is a bit of a bore…. It is rather like a Ken Campbell monologue with all the fizz, juice and joy removed. The dogged progress of the librarian is not enough to engage our hearts and minds in the way Campbell can take you on his weird adventures through sheer force of his delight and relish at their twists, coincidences and absurdities. I don’t mean to give such an engaging actor as Schiff short shrift, but his anorak adventures paradoxically achieve only parochial appeal the more they reach backwards in history and across the universe.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (2 stars) – “Are commercial theatre producers plotting to rid the West End of straight plays altogether? If they go on presenting work as awful as Underneath the Lintel, does it mean they no longer have any real interest in finding serious new plays?... This grave tosh briefly raises questions of God's existence, faith and our place in the world before dropping them again. The stage resembles a lecture room in Maria Mileaf's listless, musically enhanced production, with blackboard, slides and a chest from which clues to the borrower's identity are taken. Richard Schiff… commands the stage alone with confidence. He achieves, though, the considerable feat of making the librarian - who has no family and rejected one true love – ponderous, boring and emotionally restricted. He stands there or shambles around, bearded and balding in a black suit. His face lacks expression. He speaks in what may be an attempt at a Dutch accent. His dull voice remains almost monotonic, some end-of-sentence words swallowed.”
Alice Jones in the Independent – “A one-man show is a brave choice for any actor…. Glen Berger's play has an interesting premise… if not the most original… it ploughs a familiar furrow most recently given a witty dramatic treatment by Will Adamsdale… (in)… The Receipt…. Where Adamsdale's journey revealed blackly comic truth about the chilly alienation at the heart of contemporary urban living, Berger's play delves into the past, centring on the myth of the Wandering Jew sentenced by Christ to roam the earth until the Second Coming, and stretching out to encompass all time, as represented by his librarian's stamper, which contains ‘all the dates there ever was’… Part-lecture, part-missing person detective story, this ‘twisty mystery of a tale’ has some nice moments … and Schiff is a delightful guide. More than capable of holding the audience rapt for 90 minutes, he displays a light comic touch alongside the quiet desperation of an insignificant man in search of significance. However, once we reach the high point of his narrative… Berger's play loses its way.”
Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (2 stars) – “Only conspiracy theorists and fans of the Dewy decimal system should set foot in the Duchess, where Richard Schiff… works hard but often unsuccessfully to communicate the appeal of Glen Berger's 90-minute monologue. It is a play that should be filed under G for guff…. Berger's earnest and largely humourless script is unlikely to bring meaning to your life unless your favourite books are The Da Vinci Code, The Road Less Travelled and the travel agent's brochure; or you are the kind of person who revels in the coincidences which prove beyond doubt that Queen Victoria was Jack the Ripper, and Shakespeare's sister wrote all his plays…. Berger's writing not only lacks grace and power as it competently presses the right buttons to deliver all the expected heart-warming messages about love being what really matters, but the play is burdened with a contrived conceit in which the librarian is supposed to be delivering a lecture complete with blackboard and labelled evidence to prove his theory. Schiff delivers, but, like the play, he never startles.”
Benedict Nightingale in the Times (3 stars) - “One interpretation of this odd, absorbing import from Off-Broadway is that it’s a portrait of an obsessed, maddish nerd. Certainly that’s the impression Schiff initially gives, with his baggy suit, his fussy manner, his earnest frown, his tiny bleat of a laugh, his complaints about having to tell his story in as obscure a place as the Duchess Theatre. But that would hardly justify even as short an evening as this, and, as his unnamed character’s journey takes him from small-town Holland to China, America and Australia, the emphasis changes…. It’s refreshingly unusual stuff for London and, indeed, New York. But does Berger succeed in making us take it seriously enough?... His protagonist’s limitations just don’t permit it. What we finally get is an eccentric thriller.”
- by Caroline Ansdell
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