Okay, so, speaking of Jews and the theater – which I’m about to do – I recently posted the following photo on Facebook and described it as coming from the Bar Mitzvah of Robert Brustein–
–which it obviously isn’t. First, Robert Brustein is 90 years old and in all likelihood had a bar mitzvah 77 years ago. Second, Robert Brustein is the preeminent theater educator, essayist and critic in America, in which capacity he’s received pretty much every award that can be presented to such a personage, including the National Medal of Arts. (He’s receiving a medal here from the Alliance of Jewish Theatres for “Distinguished Service to the Theatre” or something like that.) I just want Bob and everyone else to know that no disrespect was intended by my little joke, but this photo did illustrate what for me has been the most surprising aspect of Brustein’s talent: the emergence, with his klezmer musical Schlemiel the First and its successor The King of the Schnorrers, of Robert Brustein’s Jewishness. Now my own acqaintance with Bob Brustein is slight. I wrote a few pieces for The New Republic back in the 1980s when he was their theater critic, and he was kind enough to give me some guidance and some support when my pieces kept being postponed. We knew some actors in common, and I found him to be very warm-hearted and generous whenever the names of these actors came up in our correspondence. I subsequently attended his debate in 1997 with August Wilson over multi-culturalism – a remarkable event which deserves more attention than I can give it here. I went up to him afterward and found him to be cold and distant, and, well, kind of snobbish; very much the detached intellectual, with no trace of the warm-hearted fellow I had come to know in his letters. I doubted that he was even Jewish (despite the “stein” in his last name); or if he was, then he was Jewish in the way that Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun were, preeminent scholars and critics for whom any lapse into sentimentality (much less antic cavorting!) was simply unthinkable. But no – in addition to creating two of the greatest theater education programs in this country, at Yale and at Harvard – Bob Brustein is also an actor, musician and theater-maker, as well as a klezmer-loving Jew. I am glad to report that he seems in good health and good spirits at 90, and I wish him several more years of confounding expectations. Meanwhile, I recommend everyone who hasn’t read at least some of his 16 books do so. Especially The Theatre of Revolt, Making Scenes and Reimagining American Theatre.
Underneath The Lintel… qualifies for me as one of the worst titles ever for anything while also being one of the best monodramas I’ve ever seen. (For what it’s worth, a “lintel” is a doorway – in this case, a special doorway, where a very special character is encountered; but it still sounds like “lentil.”) The play depicts a Librarian – most often a man, though it can be portrayed by a woman as well – whose name we never learn, but who has “rented this hall” (the theater space) in order to present us with his “lovely evidences.” Evidence of what? you may ask. Well, evidence of a mystery almost as old as Christianity itself, dating back before the year one AD. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The librarian, played superbly at the Geffen by Arye Gross in what constitutes a tour-de-force performance, has found in his stack of overdue books one that is 113 years overdue. Yes, you heard that right, 113 years. And this both angers and intrigues him. He vows to make the villainous borrower pay for his or her crime and proceeds to relate to us his pursuit of the criminal, using the scant evidences that an inspection of the book has yielded. Without giving the twists and turns that his investigation takes, it’s fair to say that this takes over his life, obsessiing him to the detriment of his other duties while also giving him a greater pleasure than he’s ever known before.
This is a very strange play, but one which you may find growing on you and getting under your skin in much the same way as the long overdue book has gotten under the Librarian’s skin. This piece had its premiere at the Actors Gang in Los Angeles in early 2001, with Brian T. Finney playing the Librarian. It then went on to the Soho Playhouse in NYC later that year, starring T. Ryder Smith. I missed both of those productions, but I caught up with the play in late 2001-early 2002 when my friend David Chandler replaced Mr. Smith in the role. I was also friends at that time with lead producer Scott Morfee, and in the way of such collegial friendships, I saw the show 4 or 5 times. I remember that attendance was spotty, but Scott ended up running the show for 450 performances, whether audienes came or not. Then again, it was right after 9/11 and the theater is in downtown New York, so attendance was spotty everywhere. There was a certain analogous relationship between Scott’s insistence of keeping the show running no matter what and the Librarian’s pursuit of the mystery behind the overdue book, even if it cost him his job. But it also says something about Glen Berger’s creation that it can inspire such loyalty and love in its adherents. The play has gone on to be produced all over the United States and all over the world.
This is the first time I’ve caught up with the play since 2002. I’m really sorry at having missed Richard Schiff (Toby from The West Wing) in the role in New Brunswick, NJ and London, as he always brings such intelligence and depth of feeling to whatever he does, but Arye Gross may well be as close to perfection as anyone can be in the role. Sporting a huge beard, he reminded me of aother lonely castaway, the main character in Dostoievski’s Notes from Underground. But unlike that man, filled as he is with self-loathing, the Librarian finds a sense of purpose and triumph in his discoveries, even if they lead him further away from human affection than ever. Under Steven Robman’s remarkably inventive direction – much more theatrical and detail-oriented than the production from 2002 – Arye Gross attains a level of joy and excitement – even exuberance – which is infectious.
While the play’s opening section may seem a little slow, I urge you to stay with it. I left the theater feeling thrilled by the collaborative brilliance of Glen Berger’s words, Steven Robman’s direction and Arye Gross’s performance for the ages. Don’t miss it.