Wandering Jew settles down for local theatrical run

Actor David Gassner knows he’s not supposed to, but he’s doing it anyway. He’s giving away the ending of “Under the Lintel,” the new play in which he stars, now running at San Francisco’s EXIT Theatre.

“If I don’t give away the ending, I can’t talk about the Jewish theme,” he says. “It’s a detective story about a librarian who gets a book 113 years overdue. He then goes on a quest to solve a 2,000-year-old mystery: He’s on the trail of the wandering Jew.”

That wandering Jew archetype has flitted about human consciousness for centuries. Gassner, through Glen Berger’s play, hopes to tackle the unflattering icon head on.

“The librarian,” notes Gassner, “is an atheist at the beginning of the play, with no purpose to his existence. He then goes on a journey to find this guy [the wandering Jew], travels through history, the pogroms, the concentration camps. And he discovers a purpose to his life.”

“Under the Lintel” is a one-man show, a genre that can sometimes tax theater audiences and actors alike. But not this one, insists Gassner.

“Most one-man shows can’t be called plays,” he says. “This is a play, a story that involves change and discovery.”

The set-up is rather clever: The librarian character has rented the theater, for one night only, to tell his story to anyone who will come. The stage is set to look like an empty theater, in-between engagements. “It’s designed to be low-tech,” adds Gassner.

The actor-director first saw “Under the Lintel” during its successful 15-month run in New York. Utterly enchanted, he promised himself he’d bring the play to Teatro Shalom, the theater company he runs with actor David Acevedo out of Napa Valley.

Teatro Shalom has mounted several well-received plays over the years, among them David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Kvetch” and Sam Shepard’s “Savage Love.” Every Teatro Shalom production either highlights an ethnic theme or is specially cast to toy with audience expectations about ethnicity (like a mixed race cast for its production of Edwardian playwright J.B. Priestly’s decidedly Anglo-Saxon play “Dangerous Corner”).

As a nomadic theater, Teatro Shalom has no permanent home, but has staged plays at the EXIT Theater, Noh Space, and once even put on a show in a bar. “We’ve been around since 1998,” says Gassner. “This is our ninth production. I’ve actually directed more than I’ve acted.”

Gassner’s love of theater was bred early, as was his love of Judaism. Growing up in Southern California, he attended synagogue, became bar mitzvah and was confirmed at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona.

During his teens, Gassner attended productions at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, among others, with his family. But, he remembers, “the one performance that really lit a fire under me was when A.C.T. brought ‘The Cherry Orchard’ and ‘Taming of the Shrew.’ From there, the die was cast.”

After attending U.C. San Diego, he launched his acting career, finding work in commercials and other ground-floor jobs. But within a short time Gassner, well, ran out of gas.

“I decided acting was not what I wanted to do for a living,” he says. Instead he began working in theatre, teaching drama at Napa Valley College and ultimately forming his own company, a move that offers many rewards, few of them financial.

“Nobody makes a living at this,” he says, laughing. “If we all make a few dollars, we’re overjoyed at the end of the day. You definitely put more into the production than you get back.”

Nevertheless, Gassner is still on fire with a love of theater, especially when he can present to Bay Area audiences provocative works like “Under the Lintel.”

“This is my first one-man show after 30 years in the theater,” he says. “It’s a lot of work but I trust the script.”

Teatro Shalom presents Glen Berger’s “Under the Lintel,” through April 3 at EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco. $12-$18. Information: 415) 267-4876, or www.ticketweb.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.