Stage review

'Underneath the Lintel' transports its audience

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A loose end, a search, an obsession, a mystery and ultimately, mystic insight or perhaps cosmic delusion: That's the strange journey recounted by the reclusive Librarian in "Underneath the Lintel."

He arrives harried and bumbling, setting up in a simple space, a rented lecture hall (actually Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre), lugging a small suitcase of documents and memorabilia, eager to describe his astonishing journey.

'Underneath the Lintel'
Where: 12 Peers Theater at Pittsburgh Playwrights, 937 Liberty Ave, third floor.
When: Through Feb. 26, 8 p.m. today through Saturday, Monday-Tuesday and Feb. 24-26.
Tickets: $15 (students, artists, seniors $10);

Starting small, he describes his solitary life, building gradually toward his lifetime obsession, which is nothing less than his search for the fabled Wandering Jew -- the medieval legend, not the houseplant. This is the working man, standing in his own doorway, underneath his own lintel, who shooed Jesus away from his doorstep on his route to crucifixion and was cursed with eternal life, or, rather, with eternal anonymous wandering until the second coming will finally give him rest.

But as the Librarian first unpacks his scraps of evidence, he is only seeking the man who has just returned a book a century late. Imagine the fine! So in the interest of order, he lets one literal scrap lead to another -- a London dry-cleaning claim check, a Bonn tram ticket, the name "A," a Roman coin -- until he starts journeying hither and yon across Europe and beyond.

He has a taste for the comic/mystic, as when he points out that his adjustable library stamp contains every date that ever was, including that of his own death -- but not of the man he seeks. The book in question is a Baedeker guide, its margins scrawled with "every language, including Welsh." He himself is Dutch, from one of the crossroads of Europe.

Perhaps the search is just folly. But such is the storytelling skill of playwright Glen Berger and the gradually intensifying determination of the Librarian that it is easy to be swept up in his search. At some point I found myself pulling back, perhaps when it seemed to prove -- or disprove? -- the existence of God. But what a journey.

It's a huge undertaking for Randy Kovitz, an experienced actor perhaps best known as Pittsburgh's go-to fight director. Physically, he is just right: rumpled, bemused, somewhere between supremely logical and borderline dotty. I kept thinking of that ancient mariner "with his glittering eye" encountered by Coleridge's wedding guest.

Maintaining Dutch imperviousness, Mr. Kovitz keeps peeling back fresh layers of his tale. Many moments are spot on. A few are less convincing. Maintaining the arc of the story is the greatest challenge; at the preview performance, he was still finding that rhythm. But "Lintel" never loses its grip, witness its 450-performance run off-Broadway (2001-02). It's high time it played in Pittsburgh.

The Wandering Jew is, of course, a potent parable of mankind searching for rest, completion and forgiveness. This version opens up to a sketch of the 20th century, with its wars and pogroms, then into a search for meaning that knows no century.

The true wanderer is the Librarian himself, and, ultimately, us all.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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