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The Language of Trees

Steven Levenson's uneven new play examines the impact of the war in Iraq on the family of an American translator.

Natalie Gold, Gio Perez, and Maggie Burke
in The Language of Trees
(© Joan Marcus)
The war in Iraq hits home for the family of an American translator in Steven Levenson's uneven new play The Language of Trees, sensitively directed by Alex Timbers, at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Black Box Theatre.

This promising work concerns Denton (Michael Hayden), a translator, working for a private company in Iraq, much to the consternation of his wife Loretta (Natalie Gold). She has recently lost her job and finds herself barely able to take care of herself and her seven-year-old son Eben (played by youthful-looking adult actor Gio Perez). Their neighbor Kay (Maggie Burke) helps them out, but they begin to resent her interference in their lives. Meanwhile, Denton's precarious position as a non-military American in Iraq takes a turn for the worse when he is captured by opposing forces.

The play's poetic title refers to Denton's promise to Eben that upon his return, he is going "to translate the way trees talk into English." This impossible task gives Eben hope -- and his faith in his father's abilities is touching. More broadly, the playwright explores themes of miscommunication and shows that speaking the same language is no guarantee of connection. Yet at times, Levenson comes across as trying too hard to be profound.

The scenes set on the homefront are the most powerful. Perez delivers a quietly affecting performance, capturing the vocal rhythms of his character, without overdoing the childish mannerisms. Eben's blunt observations about some of the things the adults do provide welcome moments of humor, while his fragile emotional state comes out in a couple of poignant scenes towards the play's end. Gold nicely conveys Loretta's frustrations, and her struggle to control the anger and anxiety she feels inside. Burke strikes just the right balance between pushiness and concern.

Hayden only occasionally seems to connect to the material, but it's also true that the Iraq scenes are not as well developed. The conceit of Denton interacting with an imagined figure of former President Bill Clinton (Michael Warner) never pays off. It allows the playwright to include a few cheap gags, but blunts the sense of isolation that Denton experiences. The moments when he imagines his wife and son, only for them to disappear again, are more effective.

Cameron Anderson's evocative set design incorporates both a naturalistic domestic interior (complete with working kitchen sink) with a more stylized rendering of tree branches that begin on one side of the stage, and wrap their way around, including being reflected in the design of the kitchen wallpaper. David Weiner's lighting provides colorful illumination of the branches at different moments within the production, which emphasize the magical realism qualities of the script.