The play opened in New York in the aftermath of the disaster of 9/11. One can see how the fragility of the story line – an obsessive search by the mild-mannered Dutch librarian into the fate of a missing travel guide, taken out by an unknown reader in 1873 – must have tugged at the sensibilities of an audience devastated by the attack on their city. Underneath the Lintel was variously tagged a metaphysical detective story, a confessional, a modern fable and a vision quest.
In truth, though, despite the jaunty ingratiation of Mr Schiff’s performance, unencumbered by false gestures or vocal trickery, the play is a bit of a bore. The book turns up in the returns bin one morning and his initial determination to track down the borrower and levy 113 years’ worth of fines gives way to a general speculation on the meaning of life, no less.
The unnamed librarian, occasionally writing up snippets of information on a board, or rummaging in his suitcase, takes us on a global trip to London, Bonn and China. Les Miserables is playing in all three destinations, which is all they have in common. The show is the same, only worse, in Bonn; in China, he takes the Peking Opera option.
Moving on to Brisbane in Australia, he produces a man’s jacket adorned with a yellow star. The theory gathers pace that the book-snaffler was a wandering Jew, and we are soon up to our necks in a string of glib deductions hanging from the fossilised excrement of an Asian turtle and the death of Aeschylus. In a strange way, the need to define your own existence – the “Kilroy was here” syndrome – becomes the story of the librarian, not the book borrower. He begins to dance.
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.
- Michael Coveney