Long ago, before playwright Glen Berger got sucked into the extravagant insanity of “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark,” he created an extraordinary little piece about a lonely librarian and an overdue book.
A travel guide falls through an overnight slot, 123 years late. The librarian, hoping to collect a penalty, sets out to find the owner. His quest takes him across 15 years and four continents, from sanity to madness and – perhaps – back again.
Intrigued? So was Mark Sutch, who will direct and star in Berger’s “Underneath the Lintel.” It opens Thursday at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre in NoDa and transfers next week to Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius.
“Lintel” scratches an itch and offers two new challenges.
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Because Sutch belongs to Actors’ Equity Association, theaters can’t use him without paying an approved salary (or applying for a waiver to reduce it). So he hasn’t been onstage in six years as assistant professor of theater at Davidson College.
“Not only had I begun to miss it,” he says, “but acting was starting to become a purely theoretical process. I needed to be back in the field, and it improves your credibility with students: They know you’re not just teaching from theory.
“I’ve never done a one-man show, and I’ve never directed myself. I’ve been shocked by how natural it has felt to work on this play from an actor’s perspective, how blessedly easy it is not to worry about how all the performers look.” He laughs. “It’s made me second-guess my career. Now I wonder if I made the right choice!”
After earning a B.A. in theater from Iowa State University and an M.F.A. in directing from Trinity Repertory Conservatory in Rhode Island, he became a producer and director for the Trinity Summer Shakespeare Project, which toured the Northeast. Oskar Eustis, who had hired him, left in 2005 to run the Public Theatre in New York. So Sutch relocated, too.
Davidson requires tenure-track employees to maintain a professional career. He has done that as a director, locally and with Burning Coal Theatre, a professional troupe in Raleigh. (Sutch belongs to a second union, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.)
But he wasn’t seized by an acting project until a student did Berger’s play for a class.
“Hands down, it’s the best one-person play I’ve seen,” says Sutch, who’s 38. “It avoids the pitfalls that can bore an audience with one man in front of them for 75 to 90 minutes.”
What IS this crazy play?
“It’s a literal mystery: Who left this 123-year-old book, and why? The librarian is changed by his quest, from a shell of a man who never knew love to one who opens himself up to life. Before, he simply accepted things (without question). Now he believes in things.”
To say what things would be to spoil surprises. But Sutch warns us that we can’t always trust the narrator, even if he is the only voice we’ll hear.
“He goes from curiosity to obsession to a (need like) a drug addiction he has to keep feeding. Three-quarters of the way through, you wonder if the character has gone off the deep end. There’s a true ending – Berger doesn’t cheat the audience – but it’s ambiguous.”
Sutch had a special dilemma here: He is not only a one-man band but his own conductor. Where does he go for advice?
“I’ve brought in various colleagues, who’ve given me varying opinions. You might think that wouldn’t be helpful, but it is: It proves there’s no one right or wrong way to do this play.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m very neurotic. So trusting my gut has been difficult for me – but I’m learning to do it.”