Existential journey in ‘Underneath the Lintel’

It’s not a given that the storytelling genre will transpose well to the stage. But the “twisty mystery” that playwright Glen Berger frames as a lecture delivered in a fusty lecture hall in his 2001 solo, existential drama “Underneath the Lintel” — currently at American Conservatory Theater — makes for compelling theater.

A modern-day Dutch librarian comes across a returned book, a Baedeker travel guide, that’s overdue by 113 years. It’s full of handwritten notes scrawled in the margins. Intrigued, and whimsically determined to collect the by-now-astronomical fine, the librarian embarks upon an increasingly complex and circuitous quest to discover who the borrower was.

Or is.

The clues, from the tattered travel guide to an unclaimed pair of trousers at a laundry to a tram ticket and more, take him all over the map — China, Germany, England, America, Australia (scenes of which are projected in a design by Alexander V. Nichols) — and deep into his own soul.

The mysterious and elusive borrower (quasi-spoiler alert) may in fact, the librarian realizes at a certain point, be the mythical Wandering Jew.

That ancient tale is at the core of Berger’s play: A Judean cobbler, at a defining moment in his life, stood beneath a lintel (a support across the top of a door) and callously sent a persecuted, exhausted man on his way to execution (and you know who that man was). The cobbler was thus damned to eternal, restless roaming.

At stake is the librarian’s entire belief system, and maybe ours as well. At last he must face the regrettable, underneath-the-lintel moment in his own past.

Despite some slightly precious text and word choices and a labored attempt at jokiness, Berger’s tale is both magical and memorable.

Under Carey Perloff’s direction, it ratchets up briskly and remains riveting right up until the wonderfully poignant and uplifting ending. Actor David Strathairn has a good feel for the play’s arc and for taking the audience on the engrossing journey. But he portrays the librarian in an almost cartoonishly mannered fashion — a fussy, elderly eccentric with a hesitant, stuttering speech pattern, stiff posture and herky-jerky gestures.

Strathairn, who can be so simple and truthful onscreen, is all artifice here, apparently trapped in a generic notion of a bachelor career librarian.

Yet the play itself transcends any one actor, and perhaps any one production, whether lavish (as it is here, visually) or minimalist.

REVIEW

Underneath the Lintel

Presented by the American Conservatory Theater

Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; extended through Nov. 23

Tickets: $20 to $105

Contact: (415) 749-2228, act-sf.org

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