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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Language Archive

By Julia Cho
@ the Laura Pels Theater through Dec. 19th
Click here for more information.

The Language Archive by Julia Cho is a breathtaking tale of the overwhelming power and complexity of language: how it creates and defines not only ourselves but our relationships with others, and how somehow, simultaneously, it is woefully insufficient.

It tells the story of George (Matt Letscher) whose marriage is falling apart. His wife Mary (Heidi Schreck) is deeply dissatisfied, she cries all the time, she is leaving him. And George cannot seem to find the words that will make her stay. Ironic, because George's entire life is devoted to the study of words. He is a linguist who studies, records and catalogues dying languages in his "language archive," thus saving them from total extinction.

George's professional life hits a snag just as his personal life is falling apart: the day his wife leaves him is the same day an old married couple are flown in to George's lab. They are the last remaining speakers of a language called Elloway, and they are there to be recorded speaking in their native tongue. Trouble is, the couple is in the middle of a heated spat and refuse to speak to one another in Elloway. English, they insist, is a much better language for anger.

Language means everything to George, and his wife cannot understand it. She is baffled at his capacity for sorrow at the death of a language when he seems incapable of expressing any kind of grief at the death of a human being, even a loved one. But, as George explains to us, with the death of a language comes the death of an entire world: its memories, its traditions, its stories, everything.

George is talking about worlds in a broader, anthropological sense, but he may as well be talking about the world of his marriage. They cannot understand each other anymore, the common language they once had between them is dying. "I'm sorry, George," Mary tells her husband sadly, "I've never understood what you were saying."

By contrast Alta and Resten, the elderly Ellowen couple played with endearing vivacity by Jayne Houdyshell and John Horton, have a mutual language that is as alive as their native tongue is moribund. On top of this, Cho adds another fascinating dynamic to their relationship: because they are the last remaining speakers of Elloway, they bear between the two of them all the collective knowledge of their vanished people. Their world-of-two is private and specifically theirs, but also, at times, encompasses the entire Ellowen world. The lines between what belongs to Elloway and what belongs to just them become delightfully blurred.

Now, add to the mix Emma (Betty Gilpin), George's lovelorn assistant who is secretly learning Esperanto (a passion of George's) as another - better - way to communicate with her beloved employer. But she's blocked, she can't seem to get the knack of it. Her teacher (also played by Jayne Houdyshell) an imposing German woman, cautions her that learning a language opens doors to new worlds. So, if she's unable to learn the language, she should think to herself, what door is she afraid of stepping through?

This is staggeringly intricate and utterly heart-wrenching scene the play sets. It examines delicate interplay between language and relationships: how at times language defines the relationship, and at others, the relationship defines the language.

Language is all these characters have to fill the space between one another. And yet, somehow, it is also insufficient. Alta tells George that although he thinks that a world dies because the language does, it's the other way around. If a language is dying it is because the world is already dead. There is something else to our experiences, our relationships, that is ineffable. Something neither created nor contained by language and perhaps we all die a little for our inability to express it.

Mary ultimately escapes the language barrier with her husband, and her husband himself by opening a bakery. The bread she bakes there is almost magical the way it holds one in its thrall. The sublime sight, smell, and taste of the bread taps into something visceral, a need and a pleasure knowable only in experience and inexpressable in words. The exchange George has with a woman outside the bakery says it best. Baffled and dejected, he stands outside knowing he has seen her for the last time when a woman approaches him. "What is that amazing smell?" she says. "Bread," he responds simply. "Where did you get it?" "There." And she walks away. There is nothing more to be said, for either of them.

And yet, there is truth to what Emma's Esperanto teacher has to say. There is power in word. The simple act of uttering things aloud can call them into being. And if language does have the power to open doors to worlds, what does it mean, then, that George never tells his wife he loves her? When she first tells him she's leaving, he says his whole body screams, "Don't leave," but he doesn't say it. He records a tape of a hundred voices saying in a hundred dead languages, "I love you," but none of the voices is his. Because he doesn't say it, it is at once more true and less.

In my favorite moment of the play, Cho sums up the depth and richness of our knowledge of love, loss and language with hearbreaking simplicity: Alta explains to Emma that, in Elloway, "I love you" translates directly as "Don't leave me." "Because that is what 'I love you' means to us," she says. "I never want to be left by you. I never want to be without you."

Despite how enamoured I am with this play, I found myself less than satisfied with the production. Other than Jayne Houdyshell and John Horton, who were consistent bright spots in every role they took on, the performances were inconsistent with the material and somewhat jarring. It felt as though the actors flew through their own lines, neither listening what had been said, nor considering their own response. This not only lead to unbelievable, two dimensional portrayals of what should have been vibrant characters, but also felt especially inappropriate given the nature of the material. For people who claimed to exalt the notion of language, they appeared completely unaware of their own.

It is entirely possibly that this was a choice; if it was, though, it was the wrong one. All of Cho's characters understand and appreciate language. Even those who ultimate reject it (Mary) and those who cannot seem to bend it to their will (George, Emma) are aware of it. These characters were not. I won't criticize the cast too harshly, though, because this misstep might not be their doing. I honestly can't say for sure whether the error was in the acting or in the directing (by Roundabout favorite Mark Brokaw). But I will say that given how uniformly dissatisfying the majority of the performances were, I can easily believe that they were the result of specific direction.

In the end it doesn't matter which. The play was what it was: a somewhat disappointing production of a touching and thought-provoking new work. Ms. Cho has me sold; I intend to follow her work for a long time to come.


  1. Loving your writing. Thanks for posting!!

  2. Thanks so much for the encouragement - and for reading!