A Baedeker’s Travel Guide is returned to a Dutch library 113 years overdue. The librarian who finds the volume in the returned book slot – a fussy, rule-bound man if ever there was one – is, at first, only astonished by the audacity of the person who returned it surreptitiously to the slot instead of facing the consequences at the front desk! But as he digs into the files to find out who to dun for the “fine of his life,” The Librarian (for we do not know him by any other moniker) begins to unravel a mystery about another man’s life that quickly has profound effects on his own, sending him on a journey around the world, out of his comfort zone, and into a realm of physical and existential agitation he never could have imagined experiencing.
That’s as much of a “plot summary” I would want to give about Glen Berger’s play Underneath the Lintel (12 Peers Theater, at Pittsburgh Playwrights) without spoiling its charming and thought-provoking effect, which depends to a certain extent on taking a journey into the unknown with its solitary main character. Structured as an eighty-minute lecture-presentation by the Librarian (Randy Kovitz) to an imagined audience (us) brought to the venue for “An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences” (whatever that is), the play traces, in retrospect, the discoveries he makes as he follows the trail of mysterious clues left by the patron who originally checked out the Baedeker. What the “evidences” eventually point to test the limits of belief and require a leap of faith which the rational, reality-based Librarian may or may not be fully prepared to take (and he is understanding of our skepticism if we are not prepared to take that leap, either). As the Librarian gets further and further from his safe, insular existence, parallels between his own life and that of the figure he suspects to be his mystery patron start to emerge: both are risk-averse, opting for comfortable, small lives; both hesitate to make a brave and bold choice at a decisive moment; and in both cases, the cowardly choice eventually results in a lonely, anonymous, unmoored life. Searching for the borrower of the book forces the Librarian not only to confront past mistakes, but to open himself to adventure, to the hazards of chance, and to the terrifying, exhilirating scope of existence – along with the awful, inescapable fact of its finiteness.
Advertising materials for the show describe it as “an existential detective story,” and that’s an apt description, but you shouldn’t let the word “existential” scare you off. Kovitz’s Librarian is endearing and believable as a naïve provincial propelled by curiosity into both the wider world and the deepest of inquiries, and he wrings a lot of comedy out of the character’s pedantry and fuddy-duddiness. Moreover, by infusing an almost child-like quality into the character, Kovitz keeps the discoveries fresh and avoids letting the more philosophical sections of the play get too heavy, which is certainly a risk in the material. There are a lot of “big questions” posed by the play – of the “why are we here?” variety – but Kovitz’s Everyman diffidence and innocence helps give us the courage to open ourselves to those questions, even if the answers are as elusive as the man for whom the Librarian continues to search.
Your Tatler has been a busy audience member and blogger this past week: four shows and posts in the space of five days! Looking ahead on the calendar, there’s the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh’s “French Kiss” concert on February 14th & 16th, which features Requiems by Fauré and Duruflé, exquisitely beautiful music: don’t miss it! And barebones is opening A Steady Rain, which I hope I’ll be able to catch early in its run (and blog about here).