The Language Archive
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
October 21, 2010
Striving to mix a quirky romantic comedy with a magical-realist modern fairy tale, The Language Archive doesn't really succeed at either. Which is a shame, because I thought the play promised by playwright Julia Cho's first scene had promise: a discussion between George, a linguist who studies dead languages but finds himself hopelessly inarticulate in his native tongue, and his wife, Mary, over which of them is more depressed—Mary, who is often to be found weeping unaccountably, or George, who seems impervious to grief—and why Mary is leaving cryptically poetic little notes hidden in bizarre locations around the house (in George's slippers, at the bottom of a—full—teacup).
Yes, metaphors about meaning and language abound in a way that threatens to become heavy-handed, but also has the potential to kick off a play about the fraught relationship between love and communication, between language and culture—and in the best moments of Cho's writing, we see glimpses of the poetic soul that might have imbued the play. But by the end of the first scene, Mary has left George, and the plot proceeds to mushroom off in peculiar directions, sprouting whimsical characters and mysterious coincidences and portentous dreams—and failing to really develop any of the characters or relationships.
George and his assistant Emma run a lab called the Language Archive, where speakers of almost-extinct languages can come to have their words recorded and thus preserved; George's belief in the sanctity of language, in its almost mystical power to preserve a dying culture, is the closest thing he has to an article of faith (which makes it a little peculiar that one of his favorite languages is Esperanto, a man-made language that bears no trace of a living culture). Alta and Resten, an elderly couple who are the last two speakers of the [apparently fictitious] Elloway language, have been brought from their rural Eastern European village to record for the lab—but, in classic sitcom fashion, they fought over the window seat on the plane, which has become a referendum on their entire relationship, and Alta's cooking; and rather than speak their native tongue, they alternately bicker in accented (though quite fluent) English, and try to give George romantic advice.
Meanwhile, Mary has an encounter at the train station with a philosophically suicidal old man, which leads her to change her life completely and become a baker. Emma is hopelessly in love with George, though it takes prodding from her Esperanto teacher for her to realize it. (There's quite a lot of Esperanto in the play, including a brief lesson George gives the audience.) And Resten collapses in the lab and winds up hospitalized.
Tonally, the piece is also muddled. The three leads (Matt Letscher as George, Heidi Schreck as Mary, and Betty Gilpin as Emma), either miscast or misdirected by Mark Brokaw, have an archly comic style to their performances that seems to make the thinness of their characters more evident, deflecting emotional engagement both among themselves and with the audience. Jayne Houdyshell and John Horton fight harder—and more successfully—to build a genuine-seeming relationship as Alta and Resten (despite the caricatured quality of the character development), but even they can't make a lot of headway with their smaller roles, which fall far too squarely into the category of "wise old sage" (Houdyshell as Emma's Esperanto teacher and Horton as Mary's inspirational old man and the ophthalmologist who created Esperanto).
Like the writing, Neil Patel's stunningly beautiful set (though somewhat over-elaborate for its actual use), a superstructure of shelving filled with artifacts and half-seen objects, presents glimpses of depths and layers, of possibilities, that don't seem actually to be realized in the play. Striving, I think, to infuse realism with archetype, the piece does almost the reverse: flattens out individuality into hollowness.