A scene from The Language Archive. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: A thought-provoking investigation into the limitations of language and the pitfalls of miscommunication in the broadest sense - particularly in regard to male-female relationships – and all presented in a charming story book style.
The Language Archive, by Julia Cho, now playing at the Roundabout Theatre, treads familiar ground in its explorations of language and the consequences of miscommunications between men and women – but it does so in such a delightful, original manner that it makes the whole endeavor more than worthwhile.
The basic story line is a simple one: George (Matt Letscher) is a professional linguist who runs an archive dedicated to the preservation of dying languages and who speaks a dozen languages (including the artificial universal language Esperanto) himself; yet he is somehow unable to communicate effectively with his own wife Mary (Heidi Schreck). She is hardly able to communicate with him either.
George is cool and abstract, grieving more over the death of a language than the death of an animal, a human being, or even a multitude of human beings. Mary, on the other hand, bursts into tears at the slightest provocation and is taken to attempting to communicate with George through aphorisms (with about as much depth as those found in Chinese fortune cookies) which she writes on scraps of paper, conceals about the house, and then denies having written. It comes as no surprise to the audience when Mary walks out of the marriage, although it does appear to come as a surprise to George.
There are several sub-plots as well. One centers on Emma (Betty Gilpin), George's associate at the archive who has been in love with him for years, but who has been just as unable to communicate her feelings for him as he and Mary have been to communicate their feelings for one another. A second relates to a suicidal baker (John Horton) with whom Mary swaps roles, to their mutual advantage, shortly after she abandons her husband. And a third, the most phantasmagorical of them all, relates to Emma's meeting with Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof (John Horton), the true inventor of Esperanto who actually died in 1917.
But the most important of the play's sub-plots – and this one not only does break new ground although it provides the most entertainment of all - revolves around Alta (Jayne Houdyshell) and Resten (also played by John Horton), an elderly couple from some unnamed Eastern European region who are the only remaining speakers of the Elloway language left on Earth. George is eager to transcribe their conversations before they die, lest their language die with them but, having transported them from their native land to his archive, he is suddenly confronted with another communications problem: it seems that Alta and Resten are angry with one another and, when they are angry, they refuse to communicate in Elloway (which they perceive as a language of love) but only speak English (which they consider an appropriate language with which to express hate and anger).
At one point, their mutual animosity rises to such a pitch that they impose irrevocable shunning spells on one another – vowing never to communicate with each other again. If the spells are not reversed (and, as it turns out, the last Elloway shaman capable of reversing such spells died years ago), they appear destined never to speak to one another again – which would completely thwart George's aim at preserving their language for posterity.
So these are the intertwined linguistic questions requiring resolution. Will George find the words to win Mary back? Will Mary find the means to express her feelings to George in a way he will understand? Will Emma finally communicate her feelings to George? Will Alta and Resten resolve their differences and speak to one another again in their native Elloway?
The actual resolution of these issues proves to be less important than the insights derived from interpreting the play's themes. And it likely that your interpretations may be at considerable variance to those of whomever you chance to see this play with. Which is all to the good, of course, since the most worthwhile plays, at least in my experience, are those which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations.
Consider, for example, whether our perception of reality is dependent upon the language we use to describe it or whether the language is selected to describe what is already there. Does a society or culture die when its language dies, or does the death of a language presage the death of a culture? As an example, when Mary first tells John she is leaving him, she entreats him to say something – clearly seeking an emotional, ideally tear-laden, response from him. But John, who we know to be a cool, abstract, dispassionate sort who cares more for languages than for people, does not weep nor even avow his unconditional love for Mary; the best he can muster is that she shouldn't leave.
The power of words apparently has its limitations, if substance is lacking.
The play intentionally has been staged and directed in something of a cartoony, two dimensional, or fairy tale manner which makes it difficult for even the most accomplished actors to portray their roles in considerable depth. Nonetheless, Letscher, Schreck and Gilpin all performed admirably and John Horton who, in addition to playing the part of Resten took on the additional roles of L.L. Zamenhof and the suicidal baker, performed all of his roles superbly.
But the highest praise must be reserved for Jayne Houdyshell who virtually steals the show in her roles as Alta and as Emma's Esperanto teacher. Her performances alone are worth the price of admission.
(The Language Archive plays at the Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, through December 19, 2010. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 7:30PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 7:30PM, and Sundays at 2PM. There is no performance on November 25th. Tickets are $71-$81 and are available at roundabouttheatre.org or by calling 212.719.1300.)