Glen berger's Underneath the Lintel is a perfect little play, meaning, as critic Pauline Kael once said, not that it's simple or of small consequence but that it's so precious and fine, you don't want to see anyone hurt it. Calling it one of a handful of great plays written in the last five years threatens to quash the intense delicacy of its experience, but there you goit's an astonishingly beautiful piece of writing; so beautiful, in fact, that its inherent quality both exacerbates the few problems with Empty Space's current production (running through Saturday, April 19; call 206-547-7500 for more information) and makes those same gaffes matter not a bit.
Local actor and solo performer Todd Jefferson Moore (In the Heart of the Wood) is Lintel's lone character, a Dutch librarian treating us to a 90-minute lecture he's calling "An Impressive Presentation on Lovely Evidences." Moore has a long, haunted, almost gaunt face, and his eyes contain a kind of mad vibrancy, so he's a good choice for the part of a pinched, excitable obsessive who gets his hands on a book turned in 113 years overdue and becomes convinced that he's found proof not only of God but, more importantly, his own fragile existence. What begins as an account of his scrupulous hunt through an increasingly obscure series of cluesa dog's name, a love letter, the whistling on a vintage recordingquietly unfolds into a larger reflection on the random, bittersweet, dizzying fleetness of every person's life. Armed with an unredeemed claim ticket for a pair of laundered trousers that was serving as a bookmark, the librarian heads off for London to find the book's reader, then travels anyplace else that will provide extra fodder for his ever more desperate resolve to "prove one life and justify another"including visits to China, Australia, America, and, oddly enough, several international productions of Les Mis鲡bles.
Berger's quirkily specific writing is enough to give us a crystal-clear picture of his fussy little man; the playwright has even achieved the self-satisfied dry humor and looping cadences that will be familiar to anyone who's ever had an oddball college professor with one great passion (congratulating himself on his research, the librarian tells us that he's "tucked it away in that thinking thing I cleverly carry around sometimes"). It would be a crime to give away too much of how wondrously, ridiculously intricate the librarian's search becomessuffice to say that it involves the real-life existence of a mythical figure, and that Berger even accomplishes a revelatory moment with a jar of fossilized turtle excrement.
Moore, however, often physically overstates such eccentricities; he's visibly aware that the librarian is a bit of a charming kook, something that the man himself, of course, would never know. The actor manages a nice suggestion of someone invigorated by a newfound sense of purpose, but director Adam Greenfield disrupts the human connection that Berger has set up by too diligently hitting all the transitions; when the librarian drifts off into youthful recollections of his one great romance, the moment is lacking the full impact of its heartbreak because it feels excessively planned. Sound cues are also underlined, as are Patti West's shifts in lighting.
And yet, you'll end up letting all that go at whatever second it is you get caught up in Berger's ruminations. The bliss of the script is that that second is entirely up to you: However meticulously Berger has planted his tiny bombshells, their discovery still feels like a private experience that you've stumbled upon with as much surprise as the librarian. To that end, scenic designer Peggy McDonald has done a nifty job of transforming the theater into a musty, mini-auditorium, the ideal venue for some rumpled nobody's elegiac cry for acknowledgement.