From Shakespeare inventing new words for it to Beckett using it to demonstrate its ineffectiveness in communicating truth, language has long served as the main weapon in the playwright’s arsenal.
Add Julia Cho to the list of playwrights who have attempted to tackle the complexities of language onstage and add her new play, The Language Archive, to the list of plays that speak volumes about the most universal, mysterious, gut-wrenching and insane language of all: the language of love.
Cho’s play—co-produced by South Coast Repertory and a New York City theatrical heavyweight, the Roundabout Theater Company—is a quirky, but ravishingly well-written piece that is smart, funny, deep and tender. Though the first act feels a touch long and the play’s resolution feels a bit light in terms of intellectual gravitas, it absolutely pierces the heart. If you’re one of those tormented souls who has ever spun madly into head-over-heels love, suffered the wreckage of a broken heart or been on the short side of unrequited love, this play will keep you thinking—and, more importantly, feeling—long after it ends.
George (a pitch-perfect Leo Marks) is a brilliant linguist whose obsession is cataloguing the world’s dying languages. He estimates that every two months, one of the world’s existing 6,500 languages dies, either from its last speakers perishing or from their dropping it in favor of a more culturally dominant tongue.
George’s name for this project is The Language Archive, which he works on with his devoted assistant, Emma (Laura Heisler), who seems to start as a supporting character but whose arc winds up the most surprising. It consists of finding the last speakers of an endangered language and recording them in simple conversation in order to fully capture the human dimension of their tongue, rather than merely writing down what certain words mean.
Into George’s office step Alta (the always terrific Linda Gehringer, who gets to unleash her comic chops in this role) and Resten (an equally funny Tony Amendola), the last speakers of Ellowan, a vaguely Eastern European-sounding language. The problem is that Alta and Resten are no longer speaking to each other: Decades of married life have apparently caused them to loathe one another.
Meanwhile, George’s wife, Mary, (a deeply felt Betsy Brandt) has her own issues. She cries about everything, as we learn from the play’s opening moments. She’s also dreadfully unhappy in the marriage and has resorted to leaving cryptic pieces of bad poetry in George’s belongings to somehow suggest her terrible sadness to him.
The play’s central conceit is marvelously rich: George, a man who speaks a dozen languages and is well-versed on nearly every current and dead language, is absolutely incapable of talking to his wife about his feelings. He’s brilliant in the mind and retarded in the heart.
From George and Mary’s inability, and Alta and Resten’s refusal, to communicate flow the play’s highly inventive events: strange meetings on railroad platforms; a character finding her life’s passion in baking bread; crazy dreams about the creator of the Esperanto language trying to convince characters to fall out of love.
While the plot of The Language Archive takes us on a fun, creative ride, this is one of those plays where what happens is less important than why it’s happening. There is something much, much bigger than the relatively simple story unfolding on the stage. Cho’s ability to craft a multilayered piece about both the radiant power and terrible weakness of words is nothing short of astonishing.
Even more remarkable is that Cho chooses the vast and impenetrable, but wholly ubiquitous, canvas of love to craft her tale. For The Language Archive is as much about love as it about words. Every character is either falling in or out of love, wrestling with how to communicate that love or spiraling into despair or soaring in glory over love.
This isn’t some sappily romantic puppy-love story, however. There is an undeniable pragmatism to the piece: As exciting and electrifying as love can be, it’s also fraught with fear and longing. What truly elevates Cho’s play is that her characters don’t represent just one aspect of love’s spectrum; each of them instead embodies multiple aspects, making them as complicated, confused, joyous and fearful as the participants in any love affair, anywhere, any time.
Ultimately, what Cho seems to say is that love does possess its own language, a language as difficult to master as any. It must be learned, honed and practiced, otherwise it grows stagnant and expires, like any other. But unlike a solely spoken language, love carries with it an unspoken quotient. It’s felt as much as expressed. And while words have been used since time immemorial to champion and trumpet love, as well as to express its unfathomable pain, they’re still not enough to fully capture the feeling of being in, or falling out, of love.
But sometimes, as in The Language Archive, they come pretty damn close.
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The Language Archive at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through April 25. $28-$65.
This review appeared in print as "Tongue-Tied: Julia Cho’s The Language Archive speaks volumes about love."