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The Language of Trees

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Natalie Gold, Gio Perez, and Maggie Burke.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If you fear the imminent death, or at least the long-term hospitalization, of issue-oriented theatre, Steven Levenson's preachy and pretentious new play The Language of Trees is not for you. This Roundabout Underground show, in the intimate Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, is the polar opposite of the youth-oriented initiative's first offering last year at this time, Speech & Debate: While that show was highly cool, subtly sexy, and up-to-the-moment alert, this one is covered in Halloween-ready cobwebs.

Yes, this show has it all. A 2003-trendy (and situated) anti-Iraq War plot that looks mighty uncomfortable in these late-surge days. A presiding point of view so deeply entrenched in leftward-leaning navel-gazing that character names like Loretta Trumble-Pinkerstone are presented without irony, and an actor plays a saintly Bill Clinton in a protracted fantasy sequence. The wisest character is even a seven-year-old, who not only spouts hallowed truths about the environment and social awareness, but is cast with an actor who admits in his program bio he's old enough to have obtained a B.F.A. from NYU.

This is about as old-school as it gets, despite Levenson's being relatively young (he recently graduated from Brown) and the presence of director Alex Timbers, the artistic director of the hip-theatre specialty shop Les Freres Corbusier who's helmed shows like A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, Heddatron, and Gutenberg! The Musical!. So it's not surprising that the disconnect is too much for this deceptively simple little show to bear. The only shock is in how far afield it ends up going.

But it's clear from early on that Levenson's imaginative ideas have not taken firm root. Denton (Michael Hayden) is a contractor-translator being sent to Iraq to aid in a mission he personally opposes, and is forced to leave behind his wife Loretta (Natalie Gold) and son Eben (Gio Perez). Loretta's lost her job and is hopeless around the house. The precocious Eben has few friends at school, and is close only with his teachers and especially his father, the only one who knows how to support his burgeoning intellectualism with obscure presidential trivia and his eco-centeredness by promising he'll teach Eben how to translate trees' communication as soon as he returns from the Middle East.

So the catalyst for unleashing Loretta and Eben's fear about the war and the man trapped unfairly in it is Kay (Maggie Burke). She's the nosy, judgmental busybody from next door who emphatically supports the troops "no matter what," and is never shy about enforcing her own will on Loretta and Eben, whether it's about drinking water, eating dinner, or cleaning the kitchen. The older Kay simply knows better, and is determined to never let anyone forget it, even when - or perhaps especially when - Denton is kidnapped and forced to read anti-American statements on video.

Michael Warner and Michael Hayden.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

This is the level on which The Language of Trees unflinchingly operates: salt-of-the-soil liberals being emotionally and psychologically harassed by a callous conservative more interested in proclaiming prepackaged answers than searching for any herself. Because the story is so flatly plotted, and the hallucinatory sections within Denton's secret cell so loaded with lead-fisted proselytizing - "I miss you," Denton tells Clinton (Michael Warner) in the midst of a fever dream, "We all do. The whole country. Whole world....It was like... like paradise." - you can't forgive the one-dimensional construction of the characters or their plights.

There's nothing inherently wrong with telling a story this way, assuming it's artfully and theatrically done - for example The Crucible, if you're willing to go back that far, or Angels in America if you aren't. Levenson has no obligation to hide or tamper his viewpoints, but as a playwright he does have the responsibility to make his and his characters' opinions watchable and entertaining. By the third time Eben chews out Kay for her meddling and by the second time Loretta does the same thing, it's clear that shouting for shouting's sake and not rational whispers are the order of the day.

That said, Gold still turns out a delicately nuanced performance, layering terror, hope, and the uncertainty between them with a delicate grace that believably pivots between sympathy and anger. As events unfold, she even becomes visibly affected by the weight she's forced to bear, her shoulders crunching inward and her face drawing into the gaunt visage of the grieving widow she needs to believe she's not. Gold is a haunting picture of loss at each of its stages, as Loretta tries to reconcile her own heart with the pointed words of those around her.

That even-handedness is found in no other character, and no other actor approaches Gold's success. Hayden and Burke are cartoons at opposite ends of the red-blue spectrum; Warner, who's mastered Clinton's voice but not much else, is hardly more three-dimensional. Perez redefines miscast - he's never for a millisecond convincing as the pre-adolescent Eben. His whiny, gaspy delivery is pure know-it-all smartass, all hastily fabricated artifice that leaves no room for truth. Really, though, what choices does Perez have? How many actors in their 20s could pass as seven?

Timbers's other choices are more sensible. Except for the trees' cameo appearances - which, in Cameron Anderson's otherwise ritualistically realistic set design and as lit by David Weiner, look like tissue-paper cutouts ripped from a Transylvania diorama - the play is well staged, if rarely as tense as it could be. It's hard to drum up much enthusiasm for anything that happens, though - the arithmetic-strict politicizing leaves little room for your personal interpretation or involvement. For a play ostensibly about the uneasy relationship between the dueling halves of our country's soul, The Language of Trees cheapens the discourse so much you can't help but wonder whether it has a soul of its own.

The Language of Trees
Through December 14
Roundabout Theatre Company Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Roundabout Theatre Company

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