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Theater review: 'The Language Archive' at East West Players

November 10, 2011 |  3:30 pm

LanguageArchive
If marriage is a long plane ride, do you share the window or strand your mate in the middle seat? Such dilemmas define “The Language Archive,” Julia Cho’s sweet, meandering comedy now in revival at East West Players. 

Linguist George (the excellent Ryun Yu) studies dying languages with a passion. “The task is quite Sisyphean,” he tells us — but is he speaking of ancient tongues or efforts to connect with his wife, Mary (Kimiko Gelman), a frequent crier who leaves passive-aggressive notes in her husband’s morning tea. Relationship fluency even fails Resten (Nelson Mashita) and Alta (Jeanne Sakata), an older couple who refuse to use their rare, mellifluous native dialect to fight — they prefer English for insults. Meanwhile, George’s assistant, Emma (Jennifer Chang), struggles to learn the universal language of Esperanto, even though there’s only one person she longs to converse with. 

For all its lovelorn characters, “Language” is a play of ideas, a style reinforced by set designer Francois-Pierre Couture’s giant wall of multicolored filing cabinets that open to reveal doors, recording devices and secrets. Add E.B. Brooks’s vibrant, slightly fairy-tale costumes and a certain wonderful smell, and the overall effect is a sensuality that deepens what can sometimes be more of an essay than a story. (You may also find yourself pretty hungry by the curtain call.)

The play, which won the 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and premiered at South Coast Repertory last year, depends considerably on its actors's charms. Happily, director Jessica Kubzansky's cast mines the comedy and pathos of Cho’s appealing characters: Chang exudes a youthful buoyancy, and Mashita’s smaller roles are played with brisk, delightful discipline. Yu’s droll, relationship-challenged George sells the play’s quicksilver emotional shifts, keeping us invested in his journey. “We are the only two speakers of [our] language,” a desperate George explains to his wife, referring to that unique dialect of private jokes and shorthand that develops within a relationship over time. Forget the linguistics of lost cultures — it takes two for pillow talk.  

The play’s preciousness can diminish its dramatic power, and this production doesn’t always find the edges. Cho tends to tell us things about feelings when we’d rather see them played out. Still, “The Language Archive” poignantly anatomizes the speeches and silence of love, requited and not.

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Theater review: 'The Language Archive' at South Coast Repertory

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“The Language Archive,” Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 4. $31-$41. (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: Nelson Mashita, from left, Ryun Yu, Jennifer Chang and Jeanne Sakata in East West Players' "The Language Archive." Credit: Michael Lamont.

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