Theater Review - Lost in a good book

The bookworm turns in Underneath the Lintel, a delightful oddity playing in repertory with Talley’s Folly at Actors Theatre of Atlanta. Glen Berger’s monologue play takes the form of a lecture by an absent-minded Dutch librarian (Steve Coulter), whose story begins the day he checked in an overdue library book, only to learn that it had been checked out 113 years earlier. The overdue fine is astronomical.

The Librarian becomes increasingly obsessed with tracking down the original borrower, known only as “A.,” whose address was a P.O. box in a Chinese village. The play bears the subtitle “An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences” and during his lecture, the Librarian reveals mundane objects — trousers abandoned in a Chinese laundry, bus tickets, a Roman coin — that hint at the existence of a legendary 2,000-year-old figure who may not be a myth.

We grow spellbound by the Librarian’s investigation, while realizing that it might be a sign of mental illness, not the miraculous. Not for nothing does the play include the origin of the term “red herring” among its many fascinating pieces of trivia.

Lintel evokes the kind of scholarly mystery favored by Jorge Luis Borges or Umberto Eco, only buoyed with wry comedy worthy of Garrison Keillor. Coulter makes the Librarian a kind of Ichabod Crane figure, officious yet possessed of an endearing sense of the absurd. The actor also conveys the role’s essential loneliness, as the Librarian’s quest makes him question the meaning of his own life — and all human endeavor.

Early on, the Librarian points out how he wears an old-fashioned date-stamper around his neck, which he says contains every date in human history. “This stamper contains every birth in this room. And the deaths, too.” With computers gradually replacing the paper records of libraries and other archives, Underneath the Lintel offers an ingenious celebration of the dusty, ink-smudged scraps that mankind used to document its own history.

Underneath the Lintel plays through Aug. 23 at Actors Theatre of Atlanta, Fuqua Center, Lovett School, 4075 Paces Ferry Road. Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m. $12-$24. 404-479-8491.