John Horton, Matt Letscher, and Jayne Houdyshell
in The Language Archive
(© Joan Marcus)
John Horton, Matt Letscher, and Jayne Houdyshell
in The Language Archive
(© Joan Marcus)
Julia Cho's problematic new play, The Language Archive, now at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, focuses on George (Matt Lestcher), a linguist whose words fail him in his personal life. While it's an intriguing premise, logic too often takes a backseat to language; the dialogue isn't consistently engaging, and the rules of the story are murky.

Despite devoting his career to preserving languages from going extinct, George can't find the right words to keep his wife, Mary (Heidi Schreck), from leaving him. In an early scene, she leaves notes in random places (in books, on furniture, and even in his coffee cups) that voice her despair, but she denies doing it when he confronts her. They hash out years of complaints in minutes, her most pointed criticism being, "you mourn ideas, not people".

Letscher's bookish charm gives George a quiet affability, and it's not too disappointing when Mary -- who seems a bit crazy -- leaves him. After all, his adorable and doting assistant at the archive, Emma (Betty Gilpin), has a crush on him and her neuroses seem cute at least for the time being. When she's not trying to figure out if George "like" likes her or just merely likes her, Emma helps him record Alta (Jayne Houdyshell) and Resten (John Horton), an old couple flown in from an undisclosed country to the archive to document the dying Elloway language.

George is excited to have the couple present to record an authentic dialogue, but as soon as he turns on the tape recorder, they start bickering in English over a disagreement about the window seat on the flight and quickly escalate to airing every grievance each has about the other. It comes out that they believe "English is the language of anger," and that's why they aren't speaking in their native tongue. It's a clever line that gets a laugh -- and Houdyshell and Horton play their characters with gusto -- but it also goes against the reality that people who get angry usually revert back to their mother tongue to curse or reveal something personal.

Indeed, the play requires lot of suspension of reality, as it alternates between stretches of naturalism and then random encounters that might work in a more fantastical setting. And despite Mark Brokaw's deft direction, we never get a good sense of who many of the characters are or where they're going. The ending tries to tie everything all up with heightened narration about what happens to each character, but it feels forced.

As The Language Archive sadly proves, it's not just words, but sometimes entire plays that fail us as well.