It sounds like a “Seinfeld” episode: A Dutch librarian checks in a book and, finding it is 113 years overdue, goes in search of the borrower to collect the fine. In Alexandria-based MetroStage’s production of “Underneath the Lintel,” playwright Glen Berger revives an old anti-Jewish canard about the origin of the wandering Jew. This medieval myth began making its rounds in about the 13th century and tells the tale of a Jewish cobbler who refused Jesus a place to rest beneath his doorpost – the lintel of the play’s title – when Jesus walked to Calvary bearing the wooden cross. The tale goes that Jesus responded to the cobbler: “I shall stand and rest, but you will wander until the last day.”
As the unnamed librarian, Paul Morella takes the audience on a roundabout journey that is part “CSI” and part “Amazing Race.” The taciturn librarian, stuffed into his brown tweed suit, tackles the “evidence” in his quest for the bibliophilic scofflaw bit by bit, collecting and hanging the items on a makeshift clothesline. They include the overdue book; a Baedeker’s travel guide checked out in 1873; a dry cleaning receipt for a Chinese laundry located in London; a tram ticket from Bonn; and an address in an obscure city in China, to name a few of the various ephemera the librarian hones in on in his search.
The modest stage, purportedly rented for just a single night for this lecture-cum-travelogue, is haphazardly decorated by designer James Kronzer with an attic’s worth of 20th-century detritus: battered old suitcases, an old phonograph, a slide projector and scattered slides, even a squeaky dog toy.
The discomfort of first hearing about the Christian myth of the wandering Jew soon subsides as Morella, as that Hoofddorp, Holland librarian, rambles and wanders, his tale crossing continents on his quest for the serious library fine dodger. But is that really what he’s seeking? With a librarian’s perspicacity he searches for a truth and over the course of the one-man show’s 80-some minutes finds more, much more, than he bargained for.
Playwright Berger has crafted a deceptively simple premise into a surprising treatise on anti-Semitism, coincidence and serendipity, the ridiculous and the sublime and, ultimately, the meaning of life. A functionary in a dead-end job, the librarian has finally found a purpose in life: to avenge the library’s rules by catching a miscreant patron – one likely dead for years. In this process, he discovers the world, making his way to London, New York and China – where he seems to run into the ubiquitous Broadway hit “Les Miserables” wherever he goes. (An inside theater joke, perhaps?) Morella’s take on this librarian is that of a small, insignificant man who needs a life’s purpose. His findings and reasoning at first seem random, the flotsam and jetsam of history, but the beauty of Berger’s play is that ultimately nothing is inconsequential, from the puppy toy on the ground to a British World War I ditty he sings.
What began in discomfort with a medieval Christian tale of Jewish hatred takes a circuitous route to an existential ending about the meaning and purpose of life. It’s a perfect play for the modest space MetroStage has inhabited for years now.
With this work its artistic director Carolyn Griffin has taken on another challenge: a repertory run featuring “Lintel” and a reprise of its 2003 production of “The Thousandth Night” featuring Marcus Kyd. That one-man show is a take on the Scheherazade legend but set during the Holocaust: A Jewish escapee from a camp transport is caught and tells a rambling tale of the Arabian nights to convince his captors he is an actor and not a prisoner on the run.
Together the two works provide intriguing comment and contrast on the Jewish condition in the 20th century.
“Underneath the Lintel,” in repertory through May 25 with “The Thousandth Night” through May 18, MetroStage, 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria. Tickets $50. 703-548-9044 or www.boxofficetickets.com.