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To those of who have watched and rewatched The West Wing, the performance that Richard Schiff (who plays Toby Ziegler) gives onstage, his voice surrounded by an echo effect, in Underneath the Lintel is not just a crashing disappointment – it is a reversal of what made his Toby extraordinary. The Librarian, the play’s only role, is like Toby in several ways: a driven, obsessional, clever, off-beat, obtuse/alert loner. But Toby showed no need to be loved, so some of his stranger choices and acts took on a tragic quality. Schiff’s Librarian is an essay in forlorn-little-fella cute pathos. Schiff is longing to be loved, hugged, consoled.
His performance in Glen Berger’s 2001 play was a big success in New Jersey last year. Though the play has a number of lines that doubtless prompted Schiff and Maria Mileaf to play it this semi-charming way, play and character would improve without such ingratiation. This Librarian is driven, it emerges, by the subject of the Wandering Jew, and is meant to be a study of intellectual preoccupation. But the way the theme emerges has more in common with The Da Vinci Code. The Wandering Jew here is merely what Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin: the carrot at the end of the stick (cf. uranium ore or a spy ring) to give the plot momentum. The point of the Librarian is he is a blathering monomaniac lecturing an apparently passive audience.
I was dismayed to find I could not believe in Schiff’s performance during the opening minute, but it got worse. There is no counting how many times he uses the single staccato high laugh, or the laugh in descending triplets. Or the long pause mid-phrase. Actor’s tricks galore, and not one of them fresh. Because this Librarian is nothing like Toby Ziegler, it is obvious Schiff is doing a great deal of acting here, none of it good.
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