George is a linguist, and he’ll be the first to explain that this doesn’t mean that he speaks a whole bunch of languages fluently, but rather that his field is linguistics, the scientific study of language and languages as a whole.  George’s particular field of interest and expertise is the study of dying languages such as Elloway, whose two remaining speakers are facing their twilight years.  If George doesn’t probe their knowledge asap, it will be too late to for a recorded/written record of the language, and Elloway will be lost forever.

Julia Cho’s latest play The Language Archive, now getting its world premiere at South Coast Repertory under the assured direction of Mark Brokaw, takes a look at Joe, his unhappy wife, his lovestruck assistant, and those two Elloway speakers.  Theatergoers expecting a straightforward, more or less realistic tale, like Cho’s The Winchester House or her Durango,  will find something quite different here.  Some will likely take to Cho’s brand of magical realism, in which a letter can fall down from the sky and the deceased inventor of Esperanto turn up as a fellow passenger on a train ride in 2010. Others, like this reviewer, may find The Language Archive’s dialog often either too didactic or too poetic, in either case its meaning not easily grasped. Still, The Language Archive is blessed with an all-around splendid cast headed by the always watchable Leo Marks, a stunning design, some wonderful comedic scenes, and a number of quite touching moments.

It’s clear from the get-go that The Language Archive will be a very theatrical piece of theater.  George (Marks) starts right out by breaking the fourth wall and discussing with the audience his wife Mary’s recent sadness attacks. “She cries at everything,” he explains. “Long distance phone commercials, nature specials when animals of prey get killed.  Sometimes at nothing at all.” Seated at the other end of an amusingly long dining table is Mary herself (Betsy Brandt), attempting in vain to interrupt George’s musings. Finally, she grabs his attention. “George, I can hear you,” she interjects at last.

This is The Language Archive at its funniest and most accessible.  Lines like “She cries when she pays the bills and uses her tears to seal the envelopes” get away with being poetic despite their implausibility because they’re so downright funny, especially as spoken to perfection by Marks and the rest of the cast.

Alta (Linda Gehringer) and Resten (Tony Amendola), the Elloway couple George is studying, are a comic treat as well. It turns out that the Elloway language has no vocabulary in it to express anger, so Alta and Resten must rely on English when they find themselves in the midst of a quarrel—and they arrive in George’s language laboratory quite fed up with each other. “You did so take up the entire arm rest,” berates Resten, “which made it not so comfortable, let me telling you.”  (Resten made Alta take the middle seat on the plane, having appropriated the window seat for himself.) Needless to say, this English As A Second Language exchange proves quite a disappointment for George and his faithful assistant Emma (Laura Heisler), whose humungous reel-to-reel tape recorder keeps on spinning without a word of Elloway being recorded.

As The Language Archive unfolds, Mary leaves George to find herself, Resten faces illness and the imminence of death, and Emma struggles to find the words to confess to George her feelings for him. All of these are human situations almost anyone can relate to, and the closer The Language Archive stayed to reality and credibility, the more I enjoyed it.

I’m not quite sure what it was about certain sequences that made them difficult for me to follow or grasp. Perhaps if I’d been able to read the play beforehand, I might have gotten more into it.  The lukewarm audience applause at the end of Act One would seem to indicate that I was not the only person left a bit out in the rain by much of The Language Archive, at least at intermission. The considerably louder and more enthusiastic audience reaction at curtain calls (including this reviewer’s) was likely a reaction to a more attention-grabbing second act, and the excellence of Marks, Brandt, Gehringer, Amendola, and Heisler’s work throughout.

I’m a huge fan of Marks, an actor who brings that indefinable something (electricity?) to whatever role he plays.  He’s as terrific as ever here, funny, irritating, intelligent, ingratiating, and quirky, precisely the kind of man Emma could easily fall for, but also the kind of man the more down-to-earth Mary might want to escape from (and I say that with the most complimentary of intentions).

Brandt and Heisler give great support, the former showing the complexities of a woman trapped in a marriage to a man who’s lost the ability to communicate, the latter creating an endearing geeky victim of unrequited love.  

Gehringer and Amendola are never anything less than excellent, whatever roles they play, and here they each get to be not only the bickering couple of untraceable geographic origin, but several others as well. (Elloway could be anywhere from Eastern Europe to South America to the Central Asia, for all I know.) The pair are hilarious when bickering in English and touching when Alta finds herself caregiver to her beloved Resten.  Gehringer also scores as Emma’s Esperanto tutor and Amendola as the creator of that artificial language.

Everything about The Language Archive’s design is perfect, starting with scenic designer Neil Patel’s set, with more shelves of books (and in a awesome reveal, more loaves of bread) than I’ve probably ever seen on a stage. Mark McCullough’s lighting is particularly arresting when shining from behind those books, and when focusing in on characters’ more intimate moments.  Rachel Myers’ costumes are a wonder, particularly the native Elloway garb, but also Emma’s quirky fashion picks, and the costumes Myers has created to distinguish between Amendola’s and Gehringer’s various characters. Steven Cahill has not only fabricated a striking sound design but he has also composed some wonderfully rhythmic, mood-setting original background music. Dialect coach Phillip D. Thompson has coached the actors in the fictitious Elloway language. Chrissy Church is production stage manager.

I wonder if The Language Archive will be as successful with audiences as Cho’s previous work. Easily accessible it is not. Beautifully performed and designed the South Coast Repertory production most certainly is, which alone makes it worth catching, particularly for more adventurous theatergoers.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
April 4, 2010
                                                               Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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