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Theater Review: Searching for Deep Meaning in The Language Archive

John Horton and Jayne Houdyshell in The Language Archive.

“Lately,” George (Matt Letscher) informs us, “I’ve been worried about my wife.” At this moment—the very first line of Julia Cho’s The Language Archive—we, the members of the audience, become instinctively worried about the play. Domestic milieu. Direct address. Bad signs, taken in tandem. Our worry deepens when George’s wife Mary (Heidi Schreck) speaks up: “George, I can hear you. I’m right here.” Oh, dear. When a play with a furrowed brow of a title goes cutely meta in its opening scene, trouble is most definitely on the wind.

Cho’s latest, a long, slow sigh of a show, is two breathy, boneless acts of dramatic inaction and chronically low emotional blood sugar. In the past, she's pulled off exquisite little inside-voice studies of repression (Durango, The Piano Teacher), cracking the door on some grim, often gothic psychic interior after she’s lulled us into a false sense of security with simple, lyrical dialogue and seemingly familiar human situations. But The Language Archive actually is a false sense of security: a big steaming bowl of mope and literary melancholy with precious little human urgency or practical antecedent. It’s all yearning and no earning.

The story, what there is of it, feels culled from an early pitch for Pushing Daisies. George has one of those jobs that, even in a strong economy, you’d find only in an indie movie logline: He’s a linguist at the Language Archive, a morgue for dead languages. Though an expert in vanished tongues, George (note! irony!) can’t say the words his clearly depressed (and, despite the efforts of Ms. Schreck, deeply irritating) wife is longing to hear. Then there’s Emma (Betty Gilpin), a childlike nymph-neurotic right out of Ryan Murphy’s writer’s room, who’s taking lessons in Esperanto (oof... should I really go on?) in order to better communicate her sublimated passion to George. Perhaps the doomed utopian uni-tongue can help Emma Say The Words? But wait, there’s more: George and Emma are trying to record the last known speakers of Elloway, a prelapsarian Eden-tongue that has no words to express anger or frustration. (These feelings, we’re smugly informed, are best expressed in English.) So it’s a problem when the last known speakers, Resten (John Horton) and Alta (Jane Houdyshell), turn out to be the Ralph and Alice Kramden of the Urals: They bicker in borscht-flavored English and refuse to use their allegedly beautiful Ur-babble. (When we finally hear this tinkly lingo-of-the-elves, it smells suspiciously, familiarly Slavic.) Oh, and we’ve forgotten Mary, who runs from her sinking marriage and meets (yes) a mysterious baker, who gives her his ancient bread-starter, which, when you think about it, is a lot like language...

The Language Archive just keeps rising and rising like that, spreading and spreading, a shapeless mass of yeasty pretense and moody free-association. The actors push and push, trying to get some momentum, but Cho, in trying to write a timeless fable, has instead created a paceless half-play. (Director Mark Brokaw hasn’t done much to help in that regard, beyond furnishing the kind of Pier 1 lighting and handsome hardwood decor we’ve come to associate with all of these yuppie-flu dramatic meanderings.) This feels like a middle work; Cho’s clearly looking for something, perhaps another theater language, to take her writing to the next level. I feel certain she’ll find it. But with The Language Archive, she’s constructed a giant bread bowl- and then filled it with more bread.

At the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, through December 19.

Photo: © 2010 Joan Marcus