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Librarian’s Journey Speaks Volumes

Underneath the Lintel, the one-man play by Glen Berger that is running at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield through March 1, begins as a piece of whimsy. A Dutch librarian, played by with terrific comic intensity by John Shuman, discovers that a book which has been recently returned is 113 years overdue. How is this possible? And who is the offending party?

The librarian rubs his hands together in glee, anticipating the fine that will come due. Putting aside the obvious objection that the borrower must be dead, the librarian embarks on a quixotic journey to track down the man whose name appears on the library card, the mysterious Mr. A.

In truth, Berger’s librarian is an amalgam of every dearly-held conceit about librarians: he’s persnickety, rigid when it comes to rules, a little shy, lonely, an odd bird, more comfortable with books than people. But there’s something in his quest that compels our attention, precisely because things that seem irrational on the surface often possess their own deep, internal, stubborn logic.

Off goes the librarian, to Germany, England, China, America and Australia, in pursuit of the story behind Mr. A, who seems to leapfrog effortlessly through time and space, leaving behind seemingly random clues as to his identity and purpose. What seems like an amusing, if futile, trek at first deepens into a larger inquiry on existence and Judaism. Why have Jews experienced such murderous prejudice? Why are people indifferent to the suffering of others? What condemns the Wandering Jew to a life of eternal unrest? Why hasn’t the librarian found love, or why hasn’t it found him? What is our purpose in life?

Berger has constructed a nautilus shell of a play, in which one chamber leads to another and the whole forms a tight spiral that seems to curve back on itself. None of the questions he raises can be treated separately from one another; they’re as bound together as skin and blood.

Shuman’s accomplishment as an actor is giving poignant life to a character whose peculiarities and obsessiveness could turn him into a figure of mockery. The audience is put in the implicit position of rejecting him, just as the apocryphal legend of the Wandering Jew has it that a shopkeeper brushed Jesus aside on his way to the crucifixion, and was doomed to walk forever without rest because of his cruelty.

The librarian is irritating and irritable, scrupulous, pathetic, dogged, clever and also slyly, shyly witty, all of which Shuman depicts with vital urgency. As the only actor, he’s on stage the entire time, a tight 90 minutes with no intermission, and he never fails to hold our attention, even if the play doesn’t always command it.

Berger seems to have been trying for profundity but the decision to have the librarian stand in for humanity backfires. He sacrifices specificity of character to what seems like universality, but ends by doing neither full justice. Shuman’s performance goes a long way toward redeeming the play’s weaknesses, however.

For more information and tickets, go to www.shakerbridgetheatre.org, or call 603-448-3750.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.