Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Underneath the Lintel
Presented as a kind of lecture with chalkboard and slide projections, the premise promises an intriguing conundrum as we follow clue upon clue in the librarian's search. How could the book have been checked out for over a century? Where has it been all this time and who returned it? Ordinary explanations fail as the clues deepen the search and become a kind of obsession. The librarian abandons his job, feigning illness in order to follow increasingly complex and even older clues, connecting dots until the dots seem to point to one answer. But it's an unbelievable answer, one that defies rational thought and demands a leap into a world of belief that the librarian has previously avoided.
Glen Berger's play has been popular since its 1981 premiere, in well over 200 productions including several in the Bay Area. The playwright revised it after playing the role himself a few times. There's a chattiness about the main character that one finds either charming or distracting, as he takes many verbal bird walks to display his encyclopedic knowledge and fill our heads with little-known facts. The character and his somewhat pedantic, repetitive narrative are stereotypical, mired in a kind of 1980s style of humor that sometimes feels calculated. It takes a long time for the premise to develop, leaving one time to wonder why the stakes are so low and where this is all going. Instead of the original 90-minute one-act, this production inserts an intermission, adding length and interrupting the narrative flow.
When the dots finally begin to connect, act two lifts the action and briefly becomes more engaging, but the play fails to deliver on its earlier promise, falling into confusing philosophizing and too many metaphors. That the librarian is indelibly changed is the one takeaway observation, but the how and why of that is debatable, and it all doesn't add up to much in the end.
Shillington displays admirable comfort and familiarity with the librarian, part neatnik, part nerd, a bit down on his heels in his relatively small niche, and transforms well in act two: as the librarian unravels the thread, he himself unravels, becoming more passionate about his quest. The actor's natural charm and appeal are more persuasive than the script, but can't save it from its flaws.
Director John Craven does his best to keep the action moving, and design elements are finescenic design by Joseph Elwick, lighting by Alisha Ramos, and costumes, props, sound and projections by Elizabeth Craven all work together well.
For this reviewer, it's a thin tale, overworked and overlong. Perhaps at 90 minutes it would fare better. In fairness, many in the audience seem to enjoy its folksy chattiness and the actor's affability. Seeing John Shillington work the stage for two hours might be treat enough for an evening's entertainment.
Underneath the Lintel, through February 17, 2019, at Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma CA. Tickets $15.00-$30.00 can be purchased online at http://www.cinnabartheater.org or by phone at 707-763-8920