The premise of Glen Berger’s one-man play “Underneath the Lintel” is intriguing, but it becomes far more than that in the Venice Theatre’s Stage II production and the performance of Jeremy Guerrero.
He plays a fastidious loner of a Dutch librarian, with a high sense of self-importance and an encyclopedic memory for occasionally useful facts. One day, he opens the overnight drop box to find a book that is 113 years overdue. It’s a badly worn copy of “Baedecker’s Travel Guide” with lots of hand-written notes in multiple languages and the librarian can’t get it out of his mind. He should get back to work, but he can’t.
Why would someone return it now? Who returned it? Who checked it out all those years ago? What about the fine built up over all these years?
Those are questions that nip at his brain, and the Librarian soon begins an unexpected journey that takes him around the world following clues he believes might lead him to the mystery reader, recorded simply as A., who checked out the book in 1873, with a post office box in China.
The Librarian, whose name is never revealed, shares his story in the form of a lecture that is also a sort of defense of his own actions to build public sympathy. It’s a combination mystery and detective story, as he travels from one city to another (who knows how he’s paying for it), forgetting about the job he loves as each new clue makes him hungrier for more answers.
His travels lead him to a Chinese laundry in England where he recovers a pair of well-worn pants with a tram ticket in the pocket, which in turn leads to more clues elsewhere.
But what do all those clues add up to, you may wonder. The Librarian’s case stretches and thins as he draws upon the legend of the Wandering Jew and he becomes more obsessed to find an answer. Anything that seems somewhat plausible gets labeled as evidence, even if it’s really meaningless.
Yet, we learn quite a bit about this man, who has lived a mostly solitary and routine existence. His world is that library and he sees himself as better than his colleagues, but could never say that to them. This meek man, however, comes alive on this quest, discovering something in himself and realizing that we all have a desire to be remembered. Maybe this is his moment.
Guerrero, who has stood out in any number of productions at Venice Theatre, is a compelling performer, and he works well with director Peter Ivanov to keep this a lively performance rather than a dry lecture. Guerrero effortless moves about Francine Smett’s set decorated with props from his travels, and works the audience, encouraging responses at times.
He overreaches at times, and he becomes overwrought too early by minor things, leaving less room to build heightened emotions when things become more serious later on.
But his mousy, unkempt librarian quickly grabs your attention and holds it for the play’s 90 minutes. You’re as eager as he is to learn the truth and even if you begin to think you won’t get answers, he offers unexpected surprises to keep you involved.
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL
By Glen Berger. Directed by Peter Ivanov. Reviewed March 13, Venice Theatre Stage II, 140 W. Tampa Ave., Venice. Through March 30. Tickets are $25-$28; $10-$15 for students. 488-1115; venicestage.com