Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Underneath the Lintel and The Vagina Monologues:
Two Off-Broadway Successes Open on New Jersey Stages

Robert Schiff
Underneath the Lintel by Glen Berger is in the form of an 80-minute monologue delivered by an obsessed, forcibly "retired" Dutch librarian who has rented a seedy auditorium in order to share his story with anyone whom he can get to listen. Those of us who gather at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick to hear him will benefit from listening closely with our thinking caps on. For one thing, there is a great deal of narrative complexity in his convoluted tale. More crucially, there is an ambiguity as to the character and experiences of The Librarian in this philosophic treatise on the importance of finding meaning in one's life which is likely to be lost in casual viewing.

The Librarian informs his audience that it had been his responsibility to check in books left through the overnight slot and to assess late fees. One morning, he came across a battered Baedeker's travel guide which had been last checked out in 1873, and thus was 113 years overdue. Checking back records ("so I can send him the fine of his life"), our librarian finds that the listed name of the borrower is the capital letter A. (period), and his address is a post office box in Ding Tao, China. Finding in the Baedeker a claim ticket from 1913 for a pair of trousers left in a Chinese laundry in London, the Librarian decides to set off to London to claim the trousers on behalf of the library. A 1913 Bonn tram ticket found in the trousers leads him to go to Germany, where he is convinced that A. is the man written about in a report by a tram conductor which notes in part, " ... A dirty Jew, I threw him off at Wittlesbach." Using similar found "scraps" of evidence, the Librarian travels from continent to continent throughout the world finding "proof" of A.'s existence from 37 AD through to World War II.

The Librarian is driven by the need to prove that A. is the Wandering Jew of Christian mythology. (As the tale goes, the cobbler Ahasuerus "underneath the lintel" —the horizontal building support at the top of an entrance or archway - of his shop denied succor to Jesus who was being led to his crucifixion by Roman soldiers. Jesus then told him, "I will go ... but, you will tarry 'til I come again.") By proving the existence of the Wandering Jew, the Librarian is determined to prove the existence of a Deity and thus validate his own otherwise constricted and unhappy life.

For most of the play what we know about the life of the Librarian beyond his quest we infer from its absence and his obsessiveness. It is only late in the play that, with longing and regret, he remembers back to a night when he failed to respond when offered the love of a woman. Therefore, the truism that the quality of a particular production can strongly alter our perception of a play is especially relevant here.

The estimable Richard Schiff (widely known for his portrayal of Toby Ziegler on TV's The West Wing) fully conveys the haunted, obsessive neediness of the Librarian. However, as written and performed, the Librarian comes across more as a storyteller and guide rather than a moving three-dimensional human being. Director Maria Mileaf has failed to find for Schiff sufficient colors and rhythms to satisfactorily animate his monologue. As a result of the limited variety in the rhythm of Schiff's delivery, we do not pick up on all of the lines which are necessary for us to comfortably follow his trail of evidence.

The opening is staged naturalistically with Schiff entering without warning from a door at the back wall while the house lights are up. This is good. However, when Schiff exits at the conclusion of the play, he leaves scattered about the set his "significant scraps ... all I have to ... prove one life, and justify another." Leave them behind? No way. Ever.

Still, for those seeking intellectually stimulating theatre who did not see it during his 400+ performance off-Broadway run, this Underneath the Lintel has much to offer. Post performance, it has given me much pleasure to think about and interpret. Your interpretation may differ. The validity of any interpretation will rest with each viewer. To me, it seems that the Dutch Librarian is a Jew (his reference to Passover with the Hebrew Pesach and his fixation on the Wandering Jew support this). His troubled psyche drives him to seek to prove that there is a Deity. He does so by embracing an anti-Semitic myth long repudiated and discredited by Christian churches. Beaten down by his trivial, emotionally empty life, the Librarian has an emotional breakdown and concocts a fever dream of a theory. For me, his fantastical journey is but a figment of his imagination. Still, he is an admirable figure, a latter day Don Quixote, because of his quest to give meaning to his life. The Librarian is the only wandering Jew to be encountered here.

The primary accomplishment of author Glen Berger is that he has written a play with a clarity and truth that shines through its rich ambiguities.

Underneath the Lintel continues performances through February 5, 2006 (Evenings: Tues. —Sat. 8PM / Mats. Thurs. (1/19, 2/1), Sat. (1/28, 2/4) & Sun. at 2 PM) at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online:

Underneath the Lintel by Glen Berger; directed by Maria Mileaf

The Librarian………Richard Schiff

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Karin Leone, Margot Avery,
Christine Pedi

Oh, how clever it was of Eve Ensler to have come up with the essentially simple idea behind the creation of The Vagina Monologues as a performance piece for herself. Basing her writing on over 200 interviews with women of all ages and backgrounds, Ensler has written an entertaining, interview-based series of (in this production) 11 fictional monologues interspersed with a series of extended bridges largely built around one-line responses to specific questions (i.e., if your vagina could talk, what would it say?), quotes from women in specific situations or age groups (i.e., on puberty), and a number of sociological and historic facts (i.e., a large clitoris was cited as proof of witchery in Salem, MA.). Most of the monologues are humorous, tender and affirmative (i.e., how I came to love my vagina), but a few are more on the dark side (i.e., the rape of a Bosnian woman). Ensler places the emphasis of her writing on the liberation and celebration of women's sexuality, and the phenomenon that Vagina has become makes it clear that her work speaks volumes to many.

From the viewpoint of this male reviewer, The Vagina Monologues in its current first rate incarnation at the Forum Theatre in Metuchen is an intelligent, largely light and humorous entertainment. Several monologues sound more like stand-up comedy routines than personal insights, yet some of these are among the most enjoyable. The monologues range in their effect from being sexually stimulating to causing feelings of discomfort. I feel certain that not only will those of us from Venus respond differently than those of us from Mars, but that there will be varying responses to each monologue among those from the same planet.

Under the smooth direction of Christine Pedi, the three actresses on board create a rich gallery of the large number of women portrayed. Pedi herself is an especial delight throughout. From the sweetness of the opening monologue in which a young woman finds a more satisfactory name than "itsy-bitsy" for her vagina to the next to closing one, a major showpiece in which as a former tax lawyer turned sex worker, she gets to demonstrate the disparate moaning styles during coitus of a number of women, Pedi is a total delight.

The lovely Karin Leone is charming throughout, never more so than when portraying a woman who tells us how she came to love her vagina with the help of her Bob. Margot Avery compellingly portrays the women who take us for a walk on the dark side including one who, having been the victim of rape by an adult male, finds succor in a lesbian relationship.

While not every monologue will be to everyone's taste, this delightful production of The Vagina Monologues will only be objectionable to the most prudish audiences. Paradoxically, it will be some members of such audiences for whom it is likely to prove most liberating.

The Vagina Monologues will continue performances (Evenings: Wed. — Sat. 8 PM —except 1/19- Matinees: Sat. 2 PM; Sun 3 PM) through January 29, 2006 at the Forum Theatre Company, 314 Main Street, Metuchen, NJ 08840. Box office: 732-548-0582; online

The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler; directed by Christine Pedi

Cast: Margot Avery/ Karin Leone/ Christine Pedi

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- Bob Rendell

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