‘Underneath the Lintel’ Playwright tracks down Wandering Jew in strange comic sagaby dan pine, j. staff
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Those are a few of the questions raised in Glen Berger’s “Underneath the Lintel,” an award-winning play that has racked up more than 200 productions around the world.
Now, it’s ACT’s turn. The venerable American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco will mount a new production, opening Wednesday, Oct. 23 and starring Oscar nominee David Strathairn.
“I had a friend at the Yale Cabaret,” Berger recalls. “He asked if I had anything that would be ready in a month, so I had this idea that needed a little bit of prodding to write down.” That resulted in the play’s first production at the Yale Summer Cabaret in 1999.
Berger’s “idea” centers on an eccentric Dutch librarian, a relic from the days of the Dewey Decimal System and hand-stamping books. The old crank walks on stage, beat-up valise in hand, regaling the audience with a harebrained theory about an elusive Wandering Jew who pops up in China, London and God knows where else. Somehow a houseplant, a dog and a German streetcar are involved.
It’s a tangled web worthy of a beautiful mind.
“The play began with me thinking I wanted the spirit of old klezmer music to inform the writing of it,” Berger says. “When I listen to the music, there’s a mystery in it I wanted to unpack.”
Berger, 45, drew on the Wandering Jew legend to inform the play’s storyline. The librarian seeks to put disparate clues together — he calls them “evidences” — such as a chance meeting between the Jew and Jesus on his way to his crucifixion. The Jew ends up condemned to wander the world for centuries upon centuries, until the second coming.
In the Librarian’s retelling, Jesus is a bit petulant and the Jew less than kind. That resulted in some critics calling the play anti-Semitic, and others calling it anti-Christian.
Says Berger, “Up to the 19th century, the Wandering Jew was considered a condemnation of Jews and Judaism, because he wasn’t very nice to Jesus and consequently got punished for it. I think people just know the Wandering Jew as an anti-Semitic tale in any context.”
The Virginia native drew attention early on for his 1998 play “Great Men of Science, Nos. 21 & 22.” Subsequent projects include writing the book for klezmer trumpeter Frank London’s “A Night in the Old Marketplace” and the book for the Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
He wrote a book, to be published next month, about his experience working on that troubled show, which featured songs by the band U2.
After bar mitzvah age, Berger abandoned Judaism, only to rediscover it, surprisingly, through klezmer music.
“I got into my head there was a certain music I needed to find,” he recalls. “I would buy all sorts of CDs — Gypsy music, Balkan accordion music. I went into one shop and came out with a tape by [klezmer clarinet virtuoso] Dave Tarras, and it was like being hit by a truck. It was the thing I had been distancing myself from. I realized if I have issues with Judaism from a purely religious standpoint, maybe esthetically on a deep level I can come in the back door again.”
Today, Berger and his family live near Woodstock, N.Y.; his three children attend a local Hebrew school.
In the afterward for the published version of “Underneath the Lintel,” Berger wrote of his hyper-awareness of the immensity of the universe, the puniness of humankind and the inevitability of death as the Three Facts that inform the play.
So has he come up with an answer to the ultimate question, why are we here?
“I’m so close,” Berger says. “I’m still working on it.”
“Underneath the Lintel,” Oct. 23-Nov. 17, ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. Tickets: $20 and up. (415) 749-2228 or http://www.act-sf.org