A Fine Mess

Try though they might, neither actor Christopher Haines, who appears in Glen Berger's one-man, one-act Underneath the Lintel, nor Charles St. Clair, its director, can save this sinking ship of a show. Lintel is an exploration of faith that comments on man's place in the universe -- one that's couched in a whacked-out, underwritten travelogue that no amount of talent can rescue.

The whole mish-mash begins when The Librarian (we never learn his name) discovers a book, left in the overnight return slot at the library, that's 113 years overdue.

It sounds like a single-joke show, I know. It plays like one, too.

The Librarian sends a note demanding late fee payment from the offender, and when he doesn't receive a response, sets out in search of the fellow. He travels the world, gathering scraps of information (ranging from old love letters to the suspect's pants) in search of the scofflaw's whereabouts and, ultimately, the meaning of life. His travel tales, told with the help of a chalkboard, a slide presentation and a trunkful of "evidence," are an endless snoozefest punctuated with occasional chuckles, thanks mostly to Haines' friendly way with words.

This guy -- however affably portrayed by talented Haines -- is a wing nut whose lecture about his discovery and whose description of the search for the man who dared to keep a library book out for so long turns into a long, nattering monologue that no theatrical tricks can save from itself. The revelation here is that the only person even slightly interested in finding the guy who returned the late book is the Librarian himself.

St. Clair's staging is clean and unfussy and allows his actor to make the most of playwright Berger's words. And there's the problem: Berger's script builds so slowly and is so steeped in "meaningful" plot markers that it's hard, even with Haines' agreeable performance, to stay engaged. There's no urgency in Berger's musings about man and the meaning of life, and he returns too often to the same "why are we here?" motif.

High points in Haines' performance include the emotional moment when The Librarian reveals that he once let the woman he loved slip from his life, and an especially stirring monologue close to curtain during which he plays a recording, found at the World's Fair in 1906, over which Haines sings an old war song in a weary, mournful voice.

It's not enough. Berger's play starts small and stays there, rather than building to the big-deal message about mortality that it seemed to be promising. The little laughs along the way are few and far between, and no amount of talent can liberate this tiny play. There isn't much Underneath the Lintel.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela