In my crankier moods, I think “one-person play” is an oxymoron. I’ve seen plenty, and some have been delightful – The Belle of Amherst with Julie Harris, for example, where Harris’s extraordinary, luminous brilliance (and quite a bit of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, inserted into William Luce’s banal script) lifted the show.
But that’s also the problem. Since there’s no opportunity for conversation and dramatic action is at a minimum, most one-person plays stand or fall on a couple elements – the interest level of the basic story, of course. But maybe even more, on the skill of the actor.
On that second count, Lantern’s Underneath the Lintel is in great shape. Actor Peter DeLaurier has talent and charm by the cart-load. Playing a slightly daft Dutch librarian on a mission, he doesn’t miss a trick.
DeLaurier has done this role before – in fact, in 2003 he won a Barrymore for it. I didn’t see him then – but I can tell you that here, he brings to it the vibrant energy of a young man, coupled with the seasoned, expert timing of an old pro. It’s an irresistible combination. At times, DeLaurier’s performance – including a delightful if inconsistent accent – reminded me of (dare I invoke his name?) Laurence Olivier in one of his scene-stealing, late-career star turns.
About that mission (which is to say, Glenn Berger’s play). Somebody returned a book that was 113 years overdue – and the librarian wants to know who it was. This quest will take him around the world – also, through a long process of soul-searching. (The librarian’s account of his adventures reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, though in fact, Berger’s script preceded it.)
Much of Underneath the Lintel is enjoyable, if (like DeLaurier’s accent) implausible. But Berger is after Big Ideas. In pursuit, he invokes the myth of the Wandering Jew, though at least as often I was more focused on the meandering playwright.
Still, a lot of Underneath the Linden is fun – and we probably shouldn’t be surprised when a 90 minute monodrama that asks questions like “Would you recognize a miracle if you saw one?” and “Does life have meaning?” doesn’t actually answer them.
In any case, you won’t worry about any of this when DeLaurier holds you in his thrall. Fans of virtuoso acting shouldn’t miss him – and if you saw him last time around, why not go again? Some things really do get better with age.
Underneath the Lintel, Lantern Theater Co. at St. Stephen’s Theatre, 923 Ludlow St., 215.829.0395, through December 6th. http://www.lanterntheater.org