Underneath The Lintel, Duchess Theatre, London

'West Wing' star's quirky show short of new ideas
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The Independent Culture

A one-man show is a brave choice for any actor. But for Richard Schiff, who has spent the past seven years as part of the multi-award-winning ensemble cast of the political television drama series, The West Wing, the prospect of an hour-and-a-half long stage monologue must have been that little bit more daunting. As Toby Ziegler, the director of communications at the White House, Schiff often found himself at the epicentre of the snappy dialogue in the corridors of power. Now, as he stumbles onto the sparsely decorated West End stage he has nothing but a "box of scraps" for company.

Underneath the Lintel arrives in London from New Jersey where it opened last year, having premiered off-Broadway in 2001. Schiff plays a fastidious, small-town librarian whose well-ordered, Dewey-decimalised existence is thrown into disarray when a book checked out 113 years earlier arrives in his overnight tray.

Driven by curiosity and the desire to give the miscreant "the fine of his life", the provincial fellow sets out to find "A", the last borrower of the battered Baedeker's travel guide. It is a quest which takes him to the far-flung reaches of the globe and deep into the annuls of history.

Glen Berger's play had an interesting premise then, if not the most original. A variation of the picaresque voyage of self-discovery scene, it ploughs a familiar furrow most recently given a witty dramatic treatment by Will Adamsdale, whose 2005 play, The Receipt, has a young man set off to find the owner of a receipt stuck to the bottom of his shoe.

Where Adamsdale's journey revealed blackly comic truth about the chilly alienation at the heart of contemporary urban living, Berger's play delves into the past, centring on the myth of the Wandering Jew sentenced by Christ to roam the earth until the Second Coming, and stretching out to encompass all time, as represented by his librarian's stamper, which contains "all the dates there ever was".

Part-lecture, part-missing person detective story, this "twisty mystery of a tale" has some nice moments - the paper trail of "evidences" which leads the librarian on his journey build up a dramatic momentum (rendering much of the director Maria Myleaf's whizzbangery with lighting and sound redundant) and Schiff is a delightful guide. More than capable of holding the audience rapt for 90 minutes, he displays a light comic touch alongside the quiet desperation of an insignificant man in search of significance.

However, once we reach the high point of his narrative - the tale of the Wandering Jew - Berger's play loses its way. While there are some sweetly funny quips in the first half and a good line in quirky acts throughout, the play sets itself up as a vehicle for big ideas. But his ultimate point - that to be human is to be compelled to leave our mark, scattering behind us scraps of evidence which testify to our ephemeral existence - is, like his hero, as old as the hills.

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