' ' Cinema Romantico: A Forgotten Seinfeld Guest Star

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

A Forgotten Seinfeld Guest Star

In the wake of Philip Baker Hall’s death, I did what any self-respecting “Seinfeld” devotee would do and watched “The Library” for, like, you know, the 273rd time. That episode, the fifth one of Season 3, debuting in October 1991, when the show was improbably both still rounding into form and already brilliant, is famous, of course, for Hall’s aptly named library cop Joe Bookman investigating Jerry for having checked out Tropic of Cancer in 1971 and never returning it. Karen Heller deemed Hall’s turn as a “performance for the ages” in The Washington Post and quoted comedian Patton Oswalt lauding it as “hands down, the greatest guest spot in a sitcom, ever.” It’s hard to argue. Screen Rant puts him at #13, which seems low, and EW had him at #5, which feels closer to the truth. Rolling Stone rated Bookman as the 30th best character – including Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer – in the show’s history. Of course, it also listed Marcy (Suzanne Cryer) of “The Yada Yada” at #31, which is curious, if interesting and unique, an emblem of a list with some true personality rather than robotically conforming to the consensus, and leads me into what I really want to talk about here.

“The Library” is the first episode to feature Elaine’s Pendant Publishing boss Mr. Lippman. You probably remember Mr. Lippman played by Richard Fancy, memorably excoriating Elaine for her overuse of exclamation points (“I put a quarter in the machine but the Clark Bar didn’t COME OUT!”) among other flights of comedy. But that first time out in “The Library," Mr. Lippman was played by Harris Shore in a performance that was less Jewish than Fancy’s turn and more White Anglo Saxon Protestant. This sort of midstream casting change happened with other characters, of course. Both Morty Seinfeld and Frank Costanza were originally played by Philip Bruns and John Randolph, respectively, before being replaced by Barney Martin and Jerry Stiller. It speaks to the difficulty of getting casting right the first time out which speaks to how incredible it is that they got the casting of Joe Bookman so absolutely correct; Philip Baker Hall is Joe Bookman. But casting in “Seinfeld” cuts so much deeper, always did, and what I had sort of forgotten was another less heralded – nay, not heralded at all – guest star in the very same episode. 

This was Marie Barrientos. (Her IMDb profile is not all that hefty, with a few “Law & Order” episodes, one episode of “Party of Five,” and some stuff you’ve never heard of.) She plays Mr. Lippman’s receptionist, appearing in but a single scene, coming under questioning from Elaine in the episode’s D plot about her suspicions that Lippman is conspiring to fire her because the whole office has put in a lunch order without asking her what she wanted. Throughout this scene Barrientos is flipping through a People Magazine, even when Lippman briefly exits his office and stands right there, custom suggesting she should at least pretend to work, and possesses this look throughout that is less irritation or confusion with Elaine’s fears than utter impassivity. When Elaine asks point blank if there is something she’s not being told, if Lippman is getting rid of her, the nameless Receptionist replies, “I don’t know anything,” which in Barrientos’s almost Natasha Lyonne-like outer borough-ish accent is not only objectively hysterical but pushes past the point of either real innocence or feigned innocence to become something like incredulous indifference. It’s not so much that the receptionist doesn’t know as it is that she doesn’t care.

So, here we have Bookman, professionally loyal, so steadfast in his employment he criticizes the librarian for deigning to have a private life. As such, the nameless Receptionist emerges as his kind of spiritual opposite, mindlessly paging through a periodical rather than intently reading a book and totally out of tune with her own occupation, Barrientos’s all-aces dead-eyed expression and vocalization a hysterical manifestation of glorious clock watching indolence. Bookman may well be a paragon of virtue in his own mind, but you tell me, who’s the real hero? 

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