NYT: Underneath the Lintel

Dewey Decimal Meets Da Vinci

By ANITA GATES

''THE DA VINCI CODE'' opened in movie theaters on the day I saw Glen Berger's ''Underneath the Lintel'' at the Long Wharf Theater. So it was fairly easy to get into the mood for an ancient religious mystery and a related quest involving extreme secrecy, intricate detective work and global travel.

This one, which reaches back to ancient Judea and the day of Jesus' crucifixion, turned out to be disarmingly entertaining.

The story begins with an overdue library book, seriously overdue. As the librarian (Mark Nelson) explains in this absorbing one-man show, the book is a well-worn copy of a Baedeker's travel guide, checked out in 1873 -- ''Astounded out of my wits I was'' -- by a man who identified himself only as A. and gave an address in China.

The librarian is the kind of guy who has basically never left Hoofddorp, his Dutch hometown. He went to Gouda once, but they weren't giving the cheese factory tour that day so he came home. Therefore, it's notable when, after noticing that A. had been using a laundry claim check (for a pair of pants) from London dated 1913 as a bookmark, the librarian heads for London.

From there, it's on to Germany, Australia, China and the United States, following seemingly insignificant clues that defy chronology and suggest time travel. But that may not be the explanation.

The story involves a dog named Sabrina (or so the librarian thinks at first) left in quarantine in England and never reclaimed by her owner. It turns out to be relevant that the dog refuses to sit. There is reference to a temporary job that A. held on the estate of the Lord of Darby in the early 1700's. There is a jacket bearing the familiar yellow star that Jews were required to wear in 20th-century Nazi Germany that has a Roman coin from the time of Tiberius in the pocket.

But ''Underneath the Lintel,'' smartly directed by Eric Ting, is anything but dryly historical or somber. The librarian also finds, for instance, that wherever he travels, ''Les Misérables'' is playing. He attends and doesn't care for it.

Mr. Nelson, convincingly eccentric in suspenders and shirt sleeves, standing in a rundown office that has seen much better days, treats the audience as something of a hopelessly backward class and himself as an all too imperfect speaker. ''This was getting interesting,'' he says at one point. ''Not riveting, but interesting.''

Like a good academic, the librarian offers visual aids, which range from slides of dead World War I soldiers to a drawing of 14th-century Jewish men in yellow funnel-shaped hats.

And when it becomes necessary, Mr. Nelson turns himself around, a comic figure coming face to face with tragedy, without missing a beat. And when he plays a bit of a recording said to have been made on a primitive Edison cylinder, we could swear we are hearing absolute proof of a mythic figure's existence.