If you have a mystery to solve, who’s the first person you call? A librarian, of course! Well, maybe not. But the librarian in Underneath the Lintel, now at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, turns out to be a super sleuth who tracks his prey all the way back to the crucifixion.
This play by Glen Berger is loaded with a dense thicket of clues about the borrower of a library book that is 113 years overdue, a density that could defeat lesser actors. But Robert Hawkes is nearly flawless in this one-man performance, playing the script and his audience like a virtuoso.
Our hero is a Dutch librarian who is addressing a gathering in a rented hall, a man afflicted with all the petty concerns the stereotype of his occupation suggests. He has issues with his co-workers, especially when they mooch some of his lunch. But he saves his ultimate scorn for those who drop off books without paying their dues. So you can imagine his feelings when he finds a book past due by more than a century.
Pursuing the slimmest of clues, including a laundry ticket, he relates how he pursued this scofflaw from China to Germany and from the United States to Australia. Ultimately, he entertains the theory that the person he’s hunting is actually the Wandering Jew of legend, who was doomed to walk the Earth until the second coming of Christ.
Hawkes unfolds this intricate story with immense patience while keeping the audience riveted at every moment through deft pacing changes and thrown-away laugh lines. Whether we believe the librarian's story, or if we decide he's just imagining it all, the impact is the same. He and director Susan Soltis develop a character beset not just with obsessions but with a desire to explore the meaning of life beyond daily rituals and, yes, the Dewey Decimal System.
After watching this production, you may want to discuss the ideas lurking behind the simple expression “I was here.” But whether you do or not, you will know you were in the presence of an actor functioning, gloriously, at the peak of his craft. And that’s worth a good deal more than the price of this ticket.
Underneath the Lintel
Through May 14 at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, River Street Playhouse, 56 River Street, Chagrin Falls, 440-247-8955