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The Unexpected Sublime 

A marvelously odd inquiry into the existence of God

Wednesday, Mar 31 2004
Our hero is a rumpled, pedantic librarian in the suburban Dutch town of Hoofddorp. He tells the audience about one book that came in three months overdue, and from the way he quivers it's clear that the very idea of a late book appalls him.

"Well, we got over it," he says. "But we weren't amused."

So imagine his surprise, one day, when an old Baedeker's travel guide arrives in the return bin 113 years overdue. Who's responsible? The librarian checks antique records. A certain "A." borrowed the book and gave his (or her) hometown, in 1872, as Dingtau, China. That's a baffler. So the librarian investigates, and the results of his inquiry are the topic of Glen Berger's marvelously odd new show Underneath the Lintel.

David Gassner plays the Librarian, who goes by no particular name, and who is technically not even a librarian. (He's been fired.) Gassner wears a coat with a torn pocket, a loose tie, a pair of glasses, a small beard, and a date stamper dangling from a ribbon around his neck. "Oh yes, I wasn't letting them keep this," he says. "It contains every date that ever was."

He's frenetic, meticulous, and funny. Lintel's conceit is that the Librarian has rented a theater to give an "Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences," including the 113-year-overdue book, as well as other unusual items labeled and stored in a tremendous trunk. The Librarian also uses a sheet of butcher paper and some video clips to make his case. His shaggy dog story will explain why he lost his job and why, in spite of everything, he's such a cheerful eccentric nut.

The essence of his case is that the Baedeker's was returned in Hoofddorp by a Jewish man who can also be placed, definitively, in England, China, and other parts of the world in 1912, 1754, and maybe the 1400s. The Librarian believes he's found the Wandering Jew. In unofficial Christian mythology, the Wandering Jew is a cobbler named Ahasuerus who denied water to a soon-to-be-crucified Christ -- or hit him with a stick, depending on the version -- underneath the lintel of his shoe-repair shop. Jesus cursed the cobbler to walk the Earth until the Second Coming.

According to the Librarian's patchy clues, A. owns a dog named Zebrina, and there's a plant, Zebrina pendula, known colloquially as the "wandering Jew." In Bonn in 1912 A. gets beaten bloody by anti-Semitic streetcar patrons. An English nobleman in 1754 encounters him wearing a vaguely Jewish hat. Slim evidences. But the Librarian reasons that if his man is the Wandering Jew, and he can prove the existence of a man who denied Christ in or around 36 A.D. -- well, he can prove the existence of God.

The play lasts only 90 minutes, and even so it feels too long; the Librarian wanders more than necessary to make his point. A subplot about his (one and only) love affair also feels underdeveloped. The show loses shape near the end, and director Dannille Vanderpool hasn't solved its pacing problems. But Gassner's sometimes-overwrought performance is irrepressible; he seems made for the part. I can't tell whether Berger intended the Librarian to be mainly Jewish or mainly Dutch -- I think it can go either way -- but Gassner plays him as a pitch-perfect nebbish.

I should mention that the legend of the Wandering Jew has served as anti-Semitic propaganda for centuries. Ahasuerus turns up as a symbol of evil Christ-denial in Passion plays, novels, songs, and folk rumor. But time and artistic innovation have diluted the racism; poets like Goethe and Shelley cast Ahasuerus as a sort of Jewish Prometheus, and Jewish filmmakers during the Weimar period turned him into an anti-Nazi hero.

Still, Berger claims to get letters accusing his play of anti-Semitism. So let me go out on a limb here and declare that Lintel is not anti-Semitic. It leaves the whole question of Jewish identity alone, and concentrates on how the sublime can intrude on even a librarian's poky, pedagogic life. As Berger points out in his program notes, in fact, "sublime" L. "sub" (under) + "limen" (threshold, lintel).

So there.


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