Theatergoers who know Underneath the Lintel might have thought the idea of adding original music sounded like Andrew Lloyd Webber adapting My Dinner with Andre. Star Sally Wingert does eventually sing in Theater Latté Da’s new production, but composer Frank London wasn’t trying to turn Underneath the Lintel into a Broadway spectacular.
The Ritz Theater
Glen Berger’s 2001 script about an indignant librarian and a very late book return, written for a cast of one, has become popular around the world. A local production, well-acted by Patrick O’Brien, succeeded at the Minnesota Fringe. Latté Da director Peter Rothstein secured Berger’s permission to “reimagine” the show with live music, and that’s just one of the ways he’s gone big here.
Although humor is an important element of the play, most productions probably don’t have the audience guffawing from the first moments, as this one does, with Wingert pounding at a theater door until someone lets her in and she takes the stage laden with luggage. She exudes a sense of amusing urgency, although we subsequently learn that her self-appointed mission has been ongoing for a very long time.
She’s a Dutch librarian appalled to find a book—a travel guide—returned fully 113 years late. Curious about the borrower’s identity (and hopeful of collecting a mammoth fine), she starts to examine the available evidence. As one strand leads to another, she embarks on a globetrotting quest to discern the identity of a bookworm who may actually have lived that full span, and perhaps much longer.
Berger seduces the audience with this detective story, which spirals into something more along the lines of an existential crisis. As the play touches on elements of Jewish history and identity, London’s music suggests a sacred ceremony: Singer/bassist Natalie Nowytski wordlessly sings along with multi-instrumentalist Dan Chouinard.
The musicians are often cued by a cassette player the librarian wields, blinking in and out in a curt manner that somewhat undercuts the sense of divine wonder that London’s haunting score evokes.
While the production works well on a line-by-line basis, it somewhat loses sight of the play as a whole. The wonderful Wingert tears into this role, glorying as she proudly wields her date stamp and marshals her carefully tagged scraps of evidence. The problem is that when this loony librarian becomes a fundamentally comic character, it’s hard to shift focus and portray her obsession as the result of creeping madness.
Rothstein’s overall vision is strong, and some tweaks of tone might help keep this often gorgeous production on track for a more impactful denouement. Berger’s resonant script is packed with detail and allusion, ripe for this lavish treatment. Who knows, maybe a card-catalog kickline would actually work.
Underneath the Lintel
345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
612-339-3003; through July 1