February 26, 2020

Wandering Jew leads Glen Berger on path to ‘Underneath the Lintel’

Glen Berger’s 1999 play, “Underneath the Lintel: An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences,” began when “I was getting over a breakup, living with my parents again and was fairly miserable,” Berger said from his home near Hudson, N.Y.

The playwright, 49, didn’t find solace in the Judaism he had studied at a Reform synagogue during his childhood in McLean, Va., which he had abandoned after his bar mitzvah. “I didn’t know if the religion spoke to me enough at that point to say, ‘This is something I’d like to continue,’ ” he said.

But during that troubled time, Berger “had an epiphany,” he said. “I got it into my head that there was a type of music that I really wanted to get my hands on. I kept going to the stores and would spend way too much money buying Balkan accordion music or Gypsy this and Armenian that. I kept orbiting around a kind of music I kept hearing in my head but couldn’t quite find.”

Berger had almost given up when, on a whim, he purchased a recording of klezmer songs from the 1920s. “As soon as I played it in my car on the way home, I knew this was it,” he said. “On a deep DNA level, it just spoke to me. There was a minor-key melancholy that at the same time was defiantly jaunty. It was shocking to me because I realized, ‘Oh, this is Jewish.’ ”

Berger also realized that much of his previous work had been inspired by his heritage, but in disguise. His 1991 play, “The Wooden Breeks,” spotlighted a lighthouse keeper who spends his days and nights studying tomes on natural history.

“I came to see that he was actually like a talmudic scholar,” Berger said. “And I’d written one-acts where I was describing these towns with crooked streets, which I thought were like 16th-century British villages. But the more I saw photographs of Jewish ghettos, the more I realized those places in my head more resembled shtetls. I concluded that if I couldn’t quite get into Judaism through the front door, the pure religiosity of it, maybe I could get in through the side door.”

And so Berger sought to write a play that evoked the spirit of klezmer music he perceived as “dancing despite it all.” His mind turned to the 13th-century legend of the Wandering Jew, a cobbler who supposedly refused to let Jesus rest in his lintel (doorway) on the way to his execution and was cursed by the condemned man to wander the earth until the end of days.

While the legend is anti-Semitic, Berger sought to reclaim the character as a more sympathetic figure who is harshly punished for trying to save his own life from threatening Roman soldiers.

“Underneath the Lintel,” which runs at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood from Oct. 10 to Nov. 19, became a metaphysical thriller, a one-man show narrated by an unnamed Dutch librarian who believes he is on the trail of the Wandering Jew. It all begins when he comes across a Baedeker’s travel guide that had been returned through the library’s book slot, 113 years overdue. Determined to track down the person who had returned the book and collect the fines, the librarian zeroes in on a dry-cleaning receipt from London that had been stashed in the book’s pages. When the address listed on the receipt turns out to be in China, the previously sedate librarian sets out on a worldwide quest to find the book’s borrower, whom he comes to believe is immortal.

Along the way, a series of clues helps him piece together the puzzle: among them, a love letter written in Yiddish by a woman in an Eastern European shtetl in 1906, and photographs the librarian finds in the archives at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

“He is an ordinary man proceeding on an extraordinary journey, just like the Wandering Jew himself,” Berger said.

“Underneath the Lintel” premiered at the Actors’ Gang in Los Angeles in 2001, went on to have a successful off-Broadway run and to be showcased in hundreds of productions worldwide. It will feature Arye Gross when  it opens Oct. 10 at the Geffen Playhouse.

The playwright acknowledged that the Wandering Jew is a metaphor for the Jews as being eternally cursed for rejecting Jesus and supposedly abetting his execution. Some viewers have regarded the play as anti-Semitic; others have seen it as anti-Christian for portraying Jesus as being petty on his way to the cross.

“But a myth can be repurposed to suit our own needs,” Berger said. He cited a 1932 Yiddish-language film that features a compassionate depiction of the Wandering Jew, which was meant to serve as a warning against growing Nazism in Germany.

As for allegations that the play is anti-Christian, Berger argued that he depicted Jesus as a human being who becomes understandably cross with the cobbler who refuses to let him rest in his doorway.

“But the play actually has very little to do with Jews and Christians, and more to do with the active search for meaning and purpose in one’s life,” Berger said.

Gross, who also is Jewish, agreed.

“What interests me about the play is its focus on the moment in one’s life where you have to follow something that wasn’t in your plans,” the actor said. “It happened to Abraham, when suddenly there was a voice telling him to destroy idols and later demands him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. His hand was stayed, but still it’s an example of how something can show up in your life and you now have to follow a different road.”

The lintel of the title becomes a metaphor for standing at this kind of crossroads. And should one choose the wrong path, Berger said, the play explores “how you literally and figuratively keep moving forward.”

“Underneath the Lintel” will run Oct. 10 through Nov. 19 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Tickets available at http://www.geffenplayhouse.org/lintel.