‘Underneath the Lintel’ at MetroStage

I know a lot of librarians who would love Underneath the Lintel (and non-librarians too like those in the audience last night who were having a great time). First, it includes variety of media: books, ledgers, atlases, LPs, cassettes, wax cylinders, photographs, photostats, slides, prints, and the all-important marginalia: notes someone made in the margin of a book.

A book is 113 years overdue, and card in the pocket is checked out to someone named only “A.” In the book there is a laundry ticket from London, and in the pants there is a train ticket from Germany and it is here that story and the storyteller—played with great warmth  and humor by actor Paul Morella—really take off. It’s a tour de force performance and should not be missed.

Paul Morella as The Librarian in Underneath the Lintel. Photo credit by  Chris Banks.
Paul Morella as The Librarian in ‘Underneath the Lintel.’ Photo credit by Chris Banks.

If you liked the 2004 book The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, you will especially love this play. Underneath the Lintel debuted in 2001, won an Ovation Award (L.A.’s equivalent of the Tony Award), and had more than 450 performances Off-Broadway. The playwright, Glen Berger, also wrote several Arthur episodes and co-wrote the book Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.

Another reason librarians would love this show is because Director John Vreeke, who was an associate producer and casting associate for Northern Exposure, got the Dutch librarian’s look and attitude just right (I just found out that the director is Dutch!) Morella’s look is tweedy with natural fibers, all-leather shoes, and eyeglasses as an afterthought. The attitude is smart but resigned; the method is that of a dogged researcher open to the whims of serendipity.

As The Librarian, Paul Morella possesses ‘glamour’ in the original Scots meaning of the word: enchantment or magic. He’s alone onstage for the entire one-man show, which he conducts as if he is a professor, even giving it the title of An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences. He slowly reveals different physical aspects of himself so that even though he starts out full of vitality, by the end he’s visibly harrowed – maybe shape-shifting would be a more accurate word. It’s a wonder to behold.

Using a whirring slide projector and exhibits in glassine envelopes with hand-lettered tags, the Librarian reveals the provenance of every piece of ephemera he has chased down since the book was dropped anonymously into the return slot in 1986.

“It became a world tour for me to track down that rapscallion with Baedeker’s as a guide,” he says. And it will become 90 minutes of pure pleasure for anyone who sees this delightful play, because it turns out that A. is an intriguing mythical character.

James Kronzer’s Scenic Design features a bank of glass doors topped by open transom windows. Morella uses it to good effect to describe a lintel, or the top of the doorway that first sets the mythical character on his ageless journey. The set is actually for The Thousandth Night, which takes place in a train station in the 1940s, and is being performed in repertory with Underneath The Lintel. Kudos to the subtle lighting fluctuations by Alexander Keen. 

Paul Morella (The Librarian). Photo by Chris Banks.
Paul Morella (The Librarian). Photo by Chris Banks.

Said Producing Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin, “I decided that for the first time ever we would produce two plays in rep on the same stage and hope that our patrons would agree that there is an interesting, intriguing compatibility and connection between them. [They share] storytelling at its best with underlying themes of the power of the individual against all odds and the universal search for the meaning of life.”

Individual power against all odds and the meaning of life- those are the third and fourth reasons why librarians would love this show, and they are the most important of all. Oh, and the Klezmer music. One can’t forget the Klezmer music (or the large number of sound clips perfectly interspersed by Robert Garner), because that’s what inspired Berger in the first place. Berger has written that all of his plays are inspired by music. “Underneath the Lintel was inspired by Klezmer/Yiddish music from the 1920s. The ‘jaunty melancholy,’ the ‘dancing-despite-it-all’ quality it contained, the defiance—even a certain ‘finding-joy-despite-all-the-evidence-to-the-contrary’ quality in the music—compelled me to try to express it as a play.”

In the hands of MetroStage, John Vreeke, and Paul Morella, Underneath the Lintel is indescribable.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.


Underneath the Lintel runs through May 25, 2014, in rep with The Thousandth Night, which plays through May 18, 2014, at MetroStage – 1201 North Royal Street, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, call (703) 548-9044, or purchase them online.


  1. 300% accurate review! I’ve admired Paul Morella’s ability to be so natural on stage but in this production, he is, as you say, magical. Patrons fear a monologue may be a bore. I didn’t want it to end as Paul Morella teaches so much about life and expresses the breadth of humanity with its highs and lows with perfection. Kudos to all involved for putting this show on. Encourage audiences to go asap. Now to see “The Thousandth Night”!


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