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The Language Archive

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

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

How often does it happen that a play’s best moments are those that aren’t spoken, even though its dialogue is a tour de force? Julia Cho achieves this feat in her remarkable new play, The Language Archive, which just opened in a Roundabout Production at the Laura Pels Theatre. It’s only when the characters stop talking that their words land with their full impact. Whether it’s because they’ve deployed all their ammo in an attack that’s caused unexpected collateral damage, they’re struck dumb by their inability to understand one another, or because they’re afraid or unable to say what they really mean, the gulf between what’s said and what isn’t is rarely described and traversed with as much power as it is here.

What makes this achievement more significant still is that the play itself is in no way ordinary. The characters speak to the audience about matters vital and sundry, in one case even delivering a stark lesson in the constructed language Esperanto. Major plot points revolve around tape recordings, the generational significance of bread, and an eye exam conducted (on a moving train) by a man who’s been dead over 90 years. And, because of the characters’ aforementioned troubles expressing themselves, you can never be sure you’re understanding the precise whats, whys, and hows of anyone speaking at any given point. Conventional wisdom, and familiarity with the more grounded works in Cho’s canon (Durango, BFE, The Piano Teacher, all with their own idiosyncrasies), would suggest that such disparate elements could never fully coalesce into a serious work.

Yet that’s exactly what happens over the course of two stuffed hours that don’t just embody the Sarah Ruhl style better than Ruhl herself has ever managed, but announce Cho as a dramatic force worthy of true mainstream recognition that up until now has largely eluded her. With the dynamic help of director Mark Brokaw, who’s staged things with a sleek smartness that matches the writing’s vividness and economy, this difficult and often schizophrenic work underscores with apparent ease its chief message: Nothing, but nothing, is ever exactly the way it sounds.

That’s the chief problem facing a couple that’s discovering that the lines of communication in their marriage have almost entirely broken down. George (Matt Letscher) works to preserve dying languages by recording their last few fluent speakers, and is conversational in half a dozen living ones, but is unable to tell his wife, Mary (Heidi Schreck), whatever it is she needs to hear to decide not to walk out on him. She’s recently started crying at random intervals, though she insists she’s not depressed, and has begun leaving George poetic notes in unusual places (his book, his slippers, his teacup) and claiming she didn’t; George, who hasn’t shed tears in decades, is too bewildered by her recent change of heart, and too consumed with the sadness of losing certain oral histories, to reach out whenever Mary gives him another chance to hold on.

Yet this is no “men and women don’t really know how to talk to each other” kind of play — it’s only with each other that George and Mary’s most heartfelt expressions are insufficient. George has no trouble relating to his lab assistant, Emma (Betty Gilpin), or the aging couples who come in to record their speech before they and their languages die; Mary can forge intimate, trusting bonds with strangers, and demonstrates this toward a man that sets her on the path to realizing her own dream of connecting with others via baking. Emma, meanwhile, longs to tell George what he means to her, so she begins studying his beloved Esperanto, only to learn while attempting it that her dissatisfactions delve far deeper than that alone could ever hope to correct.

The addition of one of George’s subject couples, Alta and Rosten (Jayne Houdyshell and John Horton, a pitch-perfect pair), who are among the last speakers of a language that in its purest form supposedly resembles raw music but who mostly just scream at each other in English, rounds out the blend of rich personalities that lets Cho investigate every facet of the relationships humans form with speech and the lack thereof. Cho needs every single minute at her disposal to run through them all, but ends up depicting with great beauty and sensitivity the countless, often unobservable, ways that words relate directly to the soul. It’s impossible not to recognize in the final mystical landscape a time when something you said — or, more likely, something you didn’t say — had an impact on the rest of your life that you never could have anticipated.

Brokaw never falters in presenting this transparently and concisely, letting each of the pseudo-magical moments speak with very little additional adornment. Likewise, Neil Patel’s shelf-landscape set, Mark McCullough’s sunrise-and-dusk lighting, and David Van Tieghem’s haunting original music nicely balance the clutter and clarity inherent in Cho’s writing. The production’s only real flaw is that more of these qualities don’t come through more often in the acting: In the first act, Letscher is so brightly exaggerated, Schreck so one-note obtuse, and Gilpin so silly-flighty (recalling, with practically no variation, Julie Hagerty in the Airplane! movies) that there won’t be any room left for the characters’ deep, legitimate feelings to come through.

Luckily, this all changes in Act II, when the facades completely drop and the three of them, as well as Houdyshell and Horton as the warmly resigned Alta and Reston, decide that the naked truth is the most efficient communicator of all. From then out, The Language Archive is utter bliss, tugging at your heartstrings and tear ducts alike as Cho works to move everyone into the positions that will grant them everything they most want from life. Is everyone thrilled with the results? Not necessarily at first. But once they realize that they may not speak to themselves any better than they do to others, their innermost desires — and the passionate spirit of this wise and wonderful little play — ring out loud and clear.


The Language Archive
Through December 19
Roundabout Theatre Company Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets online and current performance schedule at www.roundabouttheatre.org