Sunday, November 21, 2010

Misunderstandings in 'The Language Archive'

John Horton, Matt Letscher, Betty Gilpin and Jayne Houdyshell, above, in “The Language Archive.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

THERE are no clich├ęs in “The Language Archive,” Julia Cho’s commissioned new work from Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre through 19 Dec. There are, though, a few too many devices.

But all happily add up to more than the sum of their parts. (See opening night footage:

Each character directly addresses the audience at some point during the play. There is dialogue in defunct languages. The cast gives audience-participation lessons in Esperanto. Characters appear to each other with the very thing that each needs – sort of Deus Ex item, or needs to hear.

Matt Letscher is appealing as George, the linguist in the titular The Language Archive. He is not an emotional man; he is deeply saddened, however, by dying languages. His wife, Mary, he explains, cries all the time; this saddens and worries him. But he is unable to convince Mary, played by an alluring Heidi Schreck, why she should not leave him. On the other side of the lab, his assistant, Emma (Betty Gilpin), can’t find the words, even in Esperanto to tell him that she loves him.

George and Mary both have a wry manner and a pleasant mien; in other words they seem well suited, so it is a surprise when Mary leaves him. There is a little foreshadowing of it, though, when George – in a moment of nostalgia – remembers when he first met Mary. His words are extremely romantic and eloquent, but language is a two-way street. Mary doesn’t understand what he’s trying to say. The two are not speaking the same language, even though they are both English speakers. A shortcoming of “The Language Archive” is that it lacks character motivation as it regards these two. It is clear what they don’t want to or can’t express. What is unclear is why this is.

Elsewhere, Jayne Houdyshell (Alta and others) deftly pulls off silly accents and survives ridiculous costumes. She plays her various parts with flair, revealing the underlying truth and humanity of each character. John Horton (Resten, Alta’s husband and others) skillfully conveys the distinctions in all of his parts. Resten and Alta, the Elowan couple flown in to the Archive so that George and Emma can record the last conversations in a dying language, are better able to express their feelings. They bicker and argue in English because they are too mad at each other to use their own beautiful language. Their cutting words are stronger than the recriminations in their banter.

Love and language and, bread-making are at the heart of this quirky unromantic comedy, ably directed by Mark Brokaw.

Visit to learn more about “The Language Archive.”

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