The Language Archive is easily summarized by one bit of breezy irony: A linguist can’t find the words to save his marriage. Fortunately there’s a lot more to Julia Cho’s play, which debuted at South Coast Rep in 2009 and now makes its Bay Area debut courtesy of Symmetry Theatre. Curiously, it’s the second play about a linguist who studies dying languages to play Berkeley in less than a year, after Madeleine George’s Precious Little at Shotgun Players last fall.
The communication gap is obvious from the start of the sharp staging by Symmetry artistic director Chloe Bronzan at the Berkeley City Club. Linguist George (Gabriel Grilli) tells us how worried he is about his wife, who “cries about everything,” and she looks up from her housework, saying, “George, I can hear you. I’m right here.” Indeed, Elena Wright’s Mary is overwhelmingly, palpably sad, losing herself in housecleaning to distract from how miserable she is. In one of many unexplained touches (such as who the heck George is talking to as he sits in his living room), Mary has taken to leaving scraps of paper all over the house with poetic expressions of her discontent written in third person: “She likes to visit other marriages like a tourist, but like a tourist, she knows she’ll never get inside.” When she announces abruptly that she’s leaving him, she waits for George to say something to make her stay, even though she’s already made up her mind, but he’s paralyzed by his own interior monologue.
There’s a clinical air about Grilli as George, but it’s not emotionlessness so much as hyperanalytical befuddlement. George specializes in dying languages, obsessive about the tragedy that is a whole way of thinking, a whole world, dying out when the last native speaker does. Stacy Ross and Howard Swain are easily the best thing in the whole play as a squabbling old couple, seemingly Eastern European but representing a fictional people in their native garb, who have been brought in to the Language Archive so that George can record them conversing in their beautiful, songlike native tongue. But they argue in English because “our language is too sacred for this sort of thing,” and it doesn’t sound likely that they’re going to stop fighting anytime soon. (In a bizarre coincidence, Swain’s wife Nancy Carlin played an elderly native speaker of another dying language in Precious Little.) These scenes are flat-out hilarious, especially when Ross’s Alta agitatedly tries to feed her cooking to George to prove it’s not as foul as her husband Reston claims, and Swain’s Resten just sits back, not even looking at them, and says as a friendly warning, “Doooon’t eat it.”
Danielle Levin is endearingly overexcited as Emma, George’s colleague at the Language Archive who’s hopelessly in love with him. She’s giddy as a schoolgirl who’s eagerly signing up for a lifetime of disappointment. Ross and Swain fill out the world of the play, she as an intensely forceful German Esperanto teacher and a passerby enraptured by the smell of fresh bread, and he as a variety of oddballs: a chatty old man in a train station, a dour homeless man, and a surreal manifestation of the inventor of Esperanto.
Not quite all the pieces fit together, but it’s a highly enjoyable play and beautifully performed, nicely accentuated by a good mix of music in a variety of languages. Despite the fact that language is all that George can talk about, the play is more about love than about language, and for once love isn’t portrayed at all as an answer to everything. A lot of times love doesn’t work out, and sometimes that’s for the best. And even if it’s not for the best, at least not for everyone, that has to be okay too. Cho toys with a lot of fanciful ideas here to tickle the intellect, but in the end what makes the play work is the way the cast embodies the emotional reality behind them. Sometimes words just aren’t enough.
Show #37 of 2013, attended April 7.