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A CurtainUp Review
The Language Archive

There are sixty-five hundred languages in the world. More than half are expected to die within the next century. In fact, it's estimated that every two weeks, a language dies. I don't know about you, but this statistic moves me far more than any statistic on how many animals die or people die in a given time, in a given place. Because when we say a language dies, we are talking about a whole world, a whole way of life. It is the death of imagination, of memory. — George
The Language Archive
Matt Letscher and Jayne Houdyshell
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
If you haven't already done so, add Julia Cho's name to your list of young playwrights to watch. The Language Archive which just opened at the Roundabout's Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre is my own fifth encounter with Cho's work. Durango, which had an all too brief run at the Public Theater, is probably my favorite, but all were unique explorations of new themes and characters, and, even when not perfect, very much worth seeing. The Language Archive, which was awarded the2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize given for plays by women written in English, is no exception. It's also Cho's quirkiest.

Cho isn't reinventing the wheel in terms of her basic theme: the difficulty of using language for interpersonal connection — and the particular problems posed by the language of love even for those able to speak numerous languages. Playwrights have grappled with this most difficult of all languages since time immemorial. What's unique about The Language Archive is the way it blends absurdist fairy tale and domestic comedy and uses humor to tackle how that most troublesom language, the language of love, can cause a disconnect between men and women no matter where and how they live.

The play's thematic conceit is to make it's central character a professional linguist who runs a library for the preservation of tapes and recordings of the last surviving remnant of the languages from worlds and cultures that no longer exist. George (Matt Letscher), besides speaking a dozen languages is familiar with most of his archived dead languages. Yet, he has no words to convey his feeling to his wife Mary (Heidi Schreck). In other words his brain is a brilliant, fully functioning piece of equipment but when it comes to the heart he's a straw man. Given George and Mary's inability to share their innermost feelings, he's stumped by her sorrowful behavior (she bursts into tears at the most unlikely moments). His inept academic way of trying to tell her he loves her, exacerbates her unhappiness and so, like Ibsen's Nora, she slams the door on her marriage.

Mary's abandonment of the marriage leaves George heartbroken but still clueless as to why this has happened. His inability to pick up emotional signals also makes him deaf and dumb to the fact that Emma (Betty Gilpin), his devoted assistant at the Language Archive he runs, is madly in love with him.

So there we have the basic setup: George loves Mary but can't communicate with her on a really deep, emotional level. Mary, unable to help him bridge the gap in their intimate connection, feels compelled to leave. Emma loves George, but is virtually dumb struck in his presence. George's inability to speak or understand the language of the emotions and Emma's go-nowhere attempts to translate what's in her heart into words is a roadblock to this developing into something more meaningful.

For a more global take on George's personal dilemma, Cho has used George's linguistic work to introduce Alta (Jayne Houdyshell) and Resten (John Horton), a couple from an East European country with an apparently bleak political history. Because they are the last speakers of Elloway, the native language their countrymen stopped speaking in 1954, George has flown them over to make a tape for The Language Archive. As it turns out, though they do indeed know Elloway, Alta and Resten only speak English. It seems their marriage, like their country, is troubled and so is more suited to English which they call the language of hate, than the more romantic Elloway their parents taught them.

It's all a bit too fanciful and the end result not all that deep. However, as she has in her previous plays, the playwright deftly segues between monologues and direct action. Mark Brokaw, a director with a reputation for staging adventurous American playwrights, does his best to ease the actors through all the realistic and more fantastical events stirred up by George and Mary's marital discord, Emma's hopeless crush, and the squabbling foreign couple. Except for failing to tighten the too long and slow moving first act, he provides Cho's script with solid staging. With strong support from the crafts team the whimsical touches (like notes flying from the ceiling at pivotal moments) are amusingly realized. Surprises, such as the mysterious stranger who helps Mary and Emma move forward with their lives pop up fairly organically. Last, but hardly least, Brokaw elicits good performances from the cast.

Matt Letscher manages to make George both smart and naive, shades of a a thirty-ish version of the TV sitcom character Doogie Howser, though there's no escaping that his character is an authorial contrivance. Both Heidi Schrek's Mary and Betty Gilpin's Emma come across with enough charm to make us accept and enjoy even their rather cartoony face-to-face in the bakery that brings more joy to Mary than George ever did. Best of all are Jayne Houdyshell and John Horton who are not just terrific as Alta and Resten but as several other strangers who populate Cho's fairy tale landscape.

Houdyshell, who has come close to stealing any number of other plays I've seen her in picks up even some of the first act's slow spots. As Emma's Esperanto teacher she dishes out enough wisdom to also hang a psychotherapist sign on her door. The equally versatile Horton is at his most amusing as the stranger who is a former baker when Mary meets him and in Emma's case, the inventor of Esperanto. Michael Kass's quick-change costumes heighten the effectiveness of these scenes.

Whimsy isn't my favorite cup of theatrical tea. However, by the time Jayne Houdyshell gets into her final outfit (a train conductor's uniform) and we know whether these characters are more fluent in the language of love than they were at the beginning of the play, I felt Cho deserved a hand for her willingness to break through the boundaries of more realistic storytelling. And while Durango is still my favorite Cho play, The Language Archive is a lot of fun.

Links to Julia Cho reviews at Curtainup
The Architecture of Loss- 2004
BFE- 2005
The Piano Teacher 2007
The Language Archive
Written by Julia Cho
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Cast: Betty Gilpin (Emma), John Horton (Resten), Jayne Houdyshell (Alta), Matt Letscher (George) & Heidi Schreck (Mary).
Sets: Neil Patel
Costumes: Michael Krass
Lights: Marc McCullough
Original music and sound: David Van Tieghem
Dialect Coach: Ben Furey
Stage Manager: William H. Lang From 9/24/10; opening 10/17/10; closing 12/17/10.
Running Time: 2 hours includes one intermission
Roundabout at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre 111 West 46th Street
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/14/10 press performance
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