Theater review: 'The Language Archive' at South Coast Repertory
Language and love are the twin themes of Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive,” a loopy excursion into the difficulty of finding words for what lies in our hearts. The play, which is receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, is so emotionally attuned to our diversionary palaver that Cho might have considered borrowing the title of one of Raymond Carver’s most famous short stories: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
George (Leo Marks), a brilliant linguist who has devoted himself to archiving dying languages, is ironically plagued by communication problems at home. His wife, Mary (Betsy Brandt), leaves cryptic messages for him, a troubling development given the way she keeps bursting into tears while washing the dishes. He can’t understand the grammar of her sorrow and his obtuse academic babbling only inflames her unhappiness. To make her disappointment in their relationship crystal clear, she walks out on him.
As George struggles to learn the vocabulary of loss, he works to preserve the Elloway language, whose last living speakers, a bickering elderly couple, have agreed to come to his lab. A heated argument, however, prevents Resten (Tony Amendola) and his wife, Alta (Linda Gehringer), from speaking to each other in their native tongue. They fight exclusively in English, not caring if Elloway falls into oblivion. “Our world is already gone," Alta explains. And “no amount of talk talk talk will ever bring back” what has vanished.
“The Language Archive,” which received the 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded to women who have written distinguished works for the English-speaking theater, uniquely blends absurdist farce with sentimental comedy. It’s less philosophical than Eugène Ionesco’s bouncy plays about language’s empty promise but more curious about the yearning of its characters, which are drawn by Cho with a kind of crayon playfulness.
Surreal surprises are regularly sprung in a style that recalls both the boldness and preciousness of Sarah Ruhl. What’s most encouraging about the evolution of Cho’s talent is her freedom from the straitjacket of workaday realism.
There were hints of this direction in “Durango” and “The Piano Teacher," two more stylistically straightforward efforts for which Cho received respectful critical attention. But here she allows herself to dream onstage with delightful impunity. A letter can fall from the sky at precisely the right plot point and L.L. Zamenhof (another Amendola portrait), the inventor of Esperanto and an ophthalmologist, can appear on a train (even though he’s dead) and offer Emma an eye test for the vision problem her case of unrequited love seems to be causing.
Director Mark Brokaw, an experienced hand with adventurous American playwrights (he's had an especially fruitful history with Paula Vogel and Craig Lucas), stages the whimsy in an exaggerated manner that doesn’t diminish the work’s underlying streak of tragicomic tenderness. If the humor at times seems strained, that’s probably because Cho is better at imagining eccentric situations than setting them in verbal motion. The dialogue and anecdotes in “The Language Archive” rarely reveal a distinctive sparkle, but fortunately the playwright makes up in wit what she lacks in witticism.
The production, distinguished by Neil Patel’s book- and box-lined archival set, Rachel Myers’ character-embellishing costumes and Mark McCullough’s fluid lighting, creates a heightened universe unto itself. Sound designer Steven Cahill’s original music between scenes may overplay the sprightly mood, but the spectacle is nonetheless brought into crisp focus.
Marks, shuffling around in a green cardigan and a scholar’s perplexed squint, grounds the play in an appropriately daffy pathos. He lets us see that George’s inability to say the right thing isn’t an indication of callousness — it’s just that his feelings run beneath his banal remarks, like hidden streams in a pebbly landscape.
Both Brandt’s Mary and Heisler’s Emma — one longing to discover herself apart from George, the other hoping to discover herself beside him — have a cockeyed charm. The scene in which the women come together in the bakery that Mary eventually opens to assert her New-Agey independence has a cloying cuteness, but the cartoons are endearingly rendered.
Amendola and Gehringer, playing on an even broader stratosphere, supply plenty of old-world buoyancy as Resten and Alta, characters that are daubed with that paradoxical earthy-ethereal quality found in Isaac Bashevis Singer's shtetl stories. And these veteran SCR performers (Gehringer starred as the title character in Cho’s “The Piano Teacher”; Amendola was in the 2008 revival of “The Heiress”) spryly animate the array of vivid strangers that populate the play’s peculiar cosmos.
What lingers in the memory after "The Language Archive” is over are the story's whiplash turns and unexpected lurches that encapsulate romantic fate maybe not as eloquently but definitely as expressively as any lustrous poetic phrase.
-- Charles McNulty
Follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty
“The Language Archive,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 25. $28 to $65. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org Running time 2 hours, 10 minutes
Photos: Top: Linda Gehringer and Tony Amendola. Lower right: Leo Marks and Betsy Brandt. Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times.