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Underneath the Lintel

If you're obsessed with digging up answers -- you're a researcher, say, or maybe even a journalist -- Underneath the Lintel will speak to your obsession.

Not that playwright Glen Berger is going to tell you exactly what those answers are. And I'm not sure the Vermont Stage Company production of Berger's 2001 Off-Broadway hit has found the solution to some of the tricky challenges the play presents. But if you enjoy following a trail of clues -- and are willing to entertain some larger questions along the way -- Underneath the Lintel is a diverting journey.

Your sole guide is a man referred to in the program as The Librarian, played here by VSC Artistic Director Mark Nash. He's a Dutchman on a self-promoted lecture tour, and has rented the theater space --a just-rudimentary-enough set by John Devlin --for "An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences."

The first "evidence," which he pulls from an old trunk he calls his "box of scraps," is the most pivotal: an ancient Baedeker's travel guide checked out of the library in 1873 -- and returned, he announces with indignation, "113 years overdue." At first this discovery just piques his librarian's sense of decorum, but his curiosity about the borrower's identity eventually leads him to abandon his carefully regimented life and venture on a round-the-world odyssey. Step by step, scrap by scrap, he explains how he came to suspect that his elusive prey was the legendary Wandering Jew.

There are numerous versions of the Wandering Jew myth, which evolved from Biblical sources and first surfaced in the Middle Ages (though some reports say the character wasn't identified as Jewish until the 17th century). At its most basic, the tale sounds like something from the King Mel Gibson version of the Bible: a Jew mocks Christ on his way to the cross, and Christ curses him to wander the earth ceaselessly until the Second Coming, aka Armageddon. The story as told by The Librarian is more psychologically acute: a Jewish cobbler knows he should help when Christ collapses on his doorstep, but instead he remains "underneath the lintel" -- on the threshold -- because he's afraid to act. The curse not only forces him to wander, but also forbids him to utter his name; he loses his home and his identity.

The resonance for The Librarian is clear. His decision to track down the provenance of the overdue Baedeker has freed him from a lifetime underneath the lintel -- even though, ironically, it also may have cursed him to his own rounds of endless wandering.

Berger's script allows for some ambiguity. Is this a lovable eccentric who has finally released himself from drudgery or a lonely obsessive cracking up before our eyes? At VSC, perhaps because of Nash's inherently appealing persona, the scale weighs more toward lovable. His gawky grace fits the character well, as does the drab suit with pocket kerchief by costume designer Lorraine Reynolds. The dark, tufty beard he's grown for the role makes his long face look even longer. His comic timing makes The Librarian likable even at his prissiest: "If you have a book 113 years overdue, you bring it to the counter!" He connects with the character's delight in research -- "Let's look it up!" -- and charts his findings on the chalkboard with crazed energy, like a dour math professor getting suddenly carried away with a beautiful proof.

Nash's charm and Jim Gaylord's canny direction hold the audience's interest throughout the intermissionless 90 minutes, and that's quite a feat for a one-man show. I can't help feeling, though, that this Librarian is a little too sane, too forthright, for us to understand fully his transition from ordinary inquisitiveness to single-minded mania. We need to see the fragility of the professorial façade, and not just at the moments when he's frankly referring to his aloneness --"no wife, no children." Missing is a desperation to convince the audience, and in so doing, himself.

A staging decision at the beginning of the show doesn't help. Nash, whom we've already seen skittering about as if setting up for the lecture, is handed a curtain speech to read by a crew member. It's the usual note from VSC management -- cell phones off, etc. -- but most of us in the audience know that Nash is VSC management and has given similar speeches himself in this same room. The in-jokeyness works at cross purposes with the rest of the show's unforced verisimilitude.

Berger's not averse to easy laughs once in a while, either. There's a running joke about Les Miz which feels as old as, well, Les Miz, and occasional clunkers like this one: "I had heard that travel broadened the mind, but I was going to need a sombrero."

That said, his script is mostly a pleasure. There's the sheer detective-storiness of it all, as The Librarian pulls out each of his carefully tagged "evidences" -- a laundry ticket, a tattered pair of trousers, a love letter, all from different countries and different eras -- and gradually reconstructs how each clue led to the next. And, like The Librarian, Berger is in love with odd bits of knowledge: after seeing Underneath the Lintel, you'll know, among other tidbits, the definition of "earth-stopping," which has to do with fox hunts; the origin of the term "red herring"; and the genus of the plant known as the Wandering Jew.

But what the play ultimately addresses is the unknowable, the pursuit of that which cannot be proven. In a lovely moment early in the play, The Librarian proudly brandishes his favorite piece of library apparatus: "This is my stamper," he tells us. "It contains every date there ever was," all the birthdays in the room, every major event, every minor accident. The stamper is at once an arbiter of time and a metaphor for the arbitrariness of history: If the dates can be arranged and rearranged into infinity, they're ultimately meaningless.

The Librarian's search embraces wider and wider meanings, but may also finally be pointless. If the Wandering Jew exists, the Librarian reasons at one point, God exists, but neither is a given. All that he can do is keep looking -- cross the threshold and make his mark in the world. "We are here because we're here because we're here," goes an old song from WWI that he recalls while tracing the borrower's history. If nothing else, The Librarian's hunt has enabled him, maybe for the first time, to declare, "I'm here."

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