Off-Broadway Theater Review: THE LANGUAGE ARCHIVE (Roundabout Theatre Company)

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by Victoria Linchong on November 5, 2010

in Theater-New York


In her marvelously inventive play, The Language Archive, Julia Cho weaves together the story of two unhappy couples as a gateway to a whimsical exploration of the mysterious, anguished, tender, exquisite language of love.  Buoyantly absurdist, with a frothy meandering plotline, the play is ultimately a heartbreakingly eloquent discourse on love that will touch anyone who has ever suffered unrequited love; spent a sleepless night weeping over one who got away’ or agonized over that one word, that one phrase, that might make a loved one stay.

George is a linguist who paradoxically can’t seem to communicate with his wife, Mary. He realizes she is unhappy but his attempts to talk to her only elicit denial. Instead, she leaves cryptic notes about doomed marriages inside his coffee or slippers.

George works at The Language Archive, where he preserves dying languages by recording conversations by living speakers. When George attempts to record the dying fictional language Elloway, however, he is chagrined to discover that the Ellowans, an elderly married couple named Alta and Resten, argue in their second language, English, and refuse to speak in their native tongue. As the formidable Alta explains in an accent that seems somewhat Eastern European, “English is the language of anger.”  Their feud culminates in a Ghost Curse where they absolutely refuse to speak to one another at all.

In counterpoint to these frayed relationships, George’s assistant Emma discovers that she is in love with him, while simultaneously attempting to learn Esperanto, the constructed language created by L.L. Zamenhof as a universal second language to foster world peace. Unable to express her love, Mary meets L.L. Zamenhof himself on the train, who gives her an eye exam and counsels her to fall out of love or go blind, despite the fact that he is dead. As in a dream, chance encounters and intriguing metaphors abound.

The real pleasure of this play, though, is Cho’s beautiful writing that offers some astonishing imagery and turns of phrases. In describing why he is worried about his wife, George says, “She cries when she is asleep. She wakes up and there are little pools of tears in her ear.” Cho is also wonderfully inventive in her creation of the fictional Ellowan language, which, like many languages, contains words that don’t exist in English, including a term for a man who acts younger and younger the older he gets. Briskly directed by Mark Brokaw, the solid cast includes a standout Heidi Schreck as an achingly warm and lovable Mary.

Early on, George informs the audience: “It’s estimated that every two weeks, a language dies. I don’t know about you, but this statistic moves me far more than any statistic on how many animals die or people die in a given time, in a given place. Because when we say a language dies, we are talking about a whole world, a whole way of life.” For Cho, a whole world and an entire culture can consist of two people, the loss of which can be completely devastating. Romantic, yes, but not sentimental, Cho employs a dreamlike vocabulary to articulate the elusive essence of love.

photos by Joan Marcus

The Language Archive
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
ends on December 19, 2010
for tickets, visit Roundabout

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