Theater: “Underneath the Lintel” Is the Answer to Your Existential Crisis

Graduate Division

A lintel is the horizontal beam that spans an opening, such as a doorway, the quixotic old librarian explains to the audience in one of his many digressions. You feel as if it’s story time with Grandpa. If your grandfather has a sad secret and has read everything about everything, that is. 

Also like story time with Grandpa, it starts a bit slowly, and you spend the first 20 minutes humoring his digressions, until he hits you with a major bombshell, like the sad truth about foxhunting or a strained lament about his lost love.

It’s an intimate set-up. Underneath the Lintel follows a sole character: the anonymous Librarian. The Librarian has become obsessed by a book that was returned 113 years past due, and a clue scribbled in the margins takes the audience with him on a globe-trotting adventure in search of a man who may have lived for thousands of years. 

You can’t obsess over a 2,000-year-old vagabond without getting a little existential, and maybe a little spiritual.  “All death has a way of making life seem insignificant and small,” the Librarian remarks. 

But how sad too, to remain alive and invisible for so long, he says of the mysterious object of his search, and his anguish is too thinly veiled to stem merely from empathy.

Before you get too sad, he presents more evidence for the existence of this mythical man — a tattered jacket, a recording of him whistling at the World Fair, “I AM HERE” scrawled across all the landmarks of the world.

And it is in these things — in someone’s memory of a tune, in our small joyful discoveries — that we are significant.

As a one-man play, it’s an impressive feat, and David Strathairn is convincing in his role, by turns absurdly kooky and tremendously thoughtful, able both to invoke and to soothe an existential crisis in 90 minutes. His performance was met with a standing ovation on one recent evening.

“Underneath the Lintel” is playing at the American Conservatory Theater on 405 Geary St., San Francisco, through November 17.