All Things Entertaining and Cultural
People trade words a lot, but they rarely have conversations. The most substantial points any character makes might be called teaching moments, occasions in which someone with experience, an older person met by chance and rarely of long-term importance, imparts wisdom to someone who is confused.
Usually because of cowering from communication. Strangers, in Cho’s construct, speak seriously, and sagely, to others who need their troubled souls soothed. People who are close, even intimate, barely get past small talk that effectively evades, or serves in lieu of, crucial, and even make-or-break matter, that cries to be articulated and brought out into the open.
Cho routinely depicts situations in which the significant goes damagingly unsaid. Ironically, the couple that speaks the most freely, honestly, and passionately hurls pointedly hurtful insults at each other and takes no one’s feelings into account, the sparing of feelings being the general stumbling block for others. This couple has been married for decades and is past withholding, softening, being sensitive about wounding, or trying to please. Two other couples, one that is married, one that ought to be, dance around each other, too much afraid of disapproval, rejection, and truth to leave themselves vulnerable to disappointment, disagreement, or rebuke. Or worse, to inviting an in-depth examination of a problem it might be better for the tranquility of the relationship to let fester than to broach.
More ironically in a play populated by language experts and dealing with linguistic nuance, the preservation of languages, and communication, the funniest — and most poignant — sequence in “The Language Archive” is non-verbal.
This gambit involves the fiercely bickering eighty-somethings. The man, as ill as he is elderly, sits stage left at one end of a long, rectangular table. He and his wife share the distinction of being the last extant couple that speaks a language destined to be extinct after their passing. A dedicated linguist has flown them from some Eastern European outpost to his lab at an American university at great expense just so he could record them conversing in their doomed tongue and preserve their chatter on tape (not digital disk) for posterity.
His plans are thwarted when the pair won’t stop feuding in mangled English. Cho, in one of her more arch jokes, has them explain that their language is gentle, congenial, and positive in tone. It has no vocabulary by which to express rancor or enmity. That requires English, which they further explain, is uniquely suited to the invective they are heaping on one another. Liberally and without censorship.
The crux of the battle is the woman’s cooking. Having never traveled, even within her native country, Alta doesn’t trust an airline or a foreign restaurant to provide food that will nourish her ailing husband. She carries plastic containers of a home-made stew that apparently features goat as its main ingredient. (How she got is past security is a mystery.)Resten claims the thought of his wife’s concoction nauseates him.
No, Cho has him say it make him “nauseous” to give Alta a chance to retort how inept he is at English and to correct his “nauseous” for “nauseated.” Seems as if everyone in the professor’s lab wants to be a linguist.
Grammar aside, the two bellow at each other in English until they mutually decide not to communicate in any language and end their years in spiteful silence.
The mood on director Adam Immerwahr’s set becomes icily tense as Alta and Resten stare contemptuously at each other, and strategically into the void, without uttering a syllable. The atmosphere becomes even more explosive when Alta, for whom you feel the most sympathy, takes the container of stew and places it in front of Resten with a look in which actress Jo Twiss skillfully combines love, pride, risk, hope, and hurt. The man, played just as shrewdly by Keith Baker, gazes intently at the sealed container, as if he’s about to make a monumental decision that affects the survival of the universe. After seconds that seem like minutes of thoughtful deliberation, Baker’s face varying between disgust, kindness, and defiance, he puts his hand on the lid of the container and, in the gesture that counts, slowly pushes it away towards Alta standing crestfallen mid-table. His look now says, “There. Poison me, will you?” It hardens his smugly victorious face while Twiss, continuing the artistry, looks both heartbroken and resigned. You can see the nature of their marriage and worry with the linguist, George, that they will never have an occasion peaceful enough to coo their native tongue, which Cho provides, again.
Such instances of impasse, and of emotional injury, are common in Cho’s play and in Immerwahr’s production of it. The director does well by Cho, as well as possible considering the dramatic flaws in “The Language Archive.” Twiss, Baker, and Irungu Mutu as George, the linguist, do subtle and lovely work, as do their castmates Tiffany Villarin and Julianna Zinkel. Baker’s timing in the described scene is masterful and endows it with suspense and sorrow. Twiss is a beacon of human warmth as Alta and in several other parts she assays. Her concentration is impeccable, and her line delivery is always on the mark whether she’s being comic or offering sound advice. Mutu is charming and sympathetic as a man befuddled by so much that ought to be clear in his personal and professional lives. Immerwahr and his perceptive cast catch and convey all Cho provides with wit and humanity. The sad problem is “The Language Archive,” though full of virtues, does not merit their care or excellence.
Cho’s play is one of ideas. Several of them are good. Some extend past good to witty, offbeat, and perceptively observant. The snag is most of these ideas are of the hand-slapped-to-the-forehead type. They are sudden-seeming inspirations that find their way, fittingly, into Cho’s script, but which register as sporadic epiphanies keyed to a specific effect rather than an effort to meld ongoing themes and recurring devices into an involving story that would allow “The Language Archive” to feel like one continuous piece and give it needed texture.
As it stands, “The Language Archive” is entertaining, but it doesn’t earn our interest. Immerwahr’s production outstrips Cho’s play. You feel as if you’re watching episodes, as on a television show, rather than seeing a complete package. It’s the random virtuoso moment that counts and not the sum of the parts. “The Language Archive” suffers from a malady found in other recent plays, Kim Rosenstock’s “Tigers Be Still” and Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” among them, along with Ike Holter’s “Exit Strategy” and Kristoffer Diaz’s “#TheRevolution.” Julia Cho mistakes periodic bits of whimsy, humor, and even insight for well-crafted theatrical development and engrossing, substantial storytelling.
Keith Baker and Jo Twiss ace every opportunity they are given to make Cho’s play moving or affectingly human. Irungu Mutu entices us to care about his lovelorn, disappointed linguist via his ingenuous manner and sincere quest to find out why so much around him goes so severely awry. Actors making the most of the material they’re given don’t necessarily give “The Language Archive” a solid core. It remains a work of shred and patches, some of which are thought-provoking, and many of which are amusing, but all of which, despite Immerwahr’s skill, are fleeting — there to savor, then gone with a whim — and fail to coalesce for a satisfying theatrical or literary experience.
Cho is lucky to have Immerwahr and his cast by and on her side. The Bristol production is a beauty, and Jo Twiss in particular wrings every ounce of comedy and pathos from her scenes — An extended second-act speech in which she, as an Esperanto teacher, interrupts language instruction to give wise, motherly advice to George’s assistant (Villarin’s character, Emma) who is secretly in love with him, is touching and priceless. — but the best Immerwahr can do is to keep “The Language Archive” jauntily eccentric enough to be entertaining. For all of his fine work, Immerwahr can’t get Cho’s play zanily off the ground or solidly down-to-earth. It is too disjointed and unfocused for that.
It also does a lot of its most important work in passing, perhaps by necessity considering “The Language Archive” is primarily about reluctance to communicate.
“The Language Archive” is also very much about romance, and the failure of language to be used at its most effective, if at any level effective, in the significant moments of a relationship.
Mutu’s George is a lover of languages and an expert in their origins and intricacies. He collects languages. Tapes and written transcripts sit in numerous boxes that fill the capacious shelves of George’s lab. Linguistic precision is his vocation, his mission. How ironic, almost paradoxical, that he cannot transfer his feelings about the women he loves, his wife, Mary, and his assistant, Emma, to useful words!
Villarin’s Emma is George’s assistant, as ardent as he about linguistics and as ardent about him as he will come to be about her. She, like George cannot express her feelings. She thinks it’s inappropriate because she works with George and because he is married (but separated by the time Emma’s pangs for him reach their height). Emma would rather suffer in stoic silence than risk all by telling George about her attraction to him or by being what some may construe as opportunistic or unprofessional.
George knows he’s attracted to Emma, but he doesn’t have to act on it. He’s married, and though he may be more compatible with Emma, there’s no mistaking he cares about and has genuine affection for his wife, Mary.
There’s also no mistaking that he is more inept at expressing his sentiments, or even his immediate desires, to Mary than he is with anyone. George and Mary live in a kind of passive-aggressive limbo in which neither finds a way, even when trying, to say what’s on his or her mind.
Few in “The Language Archive” are direct or articulate about expressing what they want or mean. That Cho’s ultimately irony, one you glean and see put to practice on stage but one that strikes you more intellectually, as a conclusion, than theatrically, as something that moves or amuses by its own accord. The spatting couple who threaten to cast their language to oblivion are the most eloquent at revealing their deepest and most immediate thoughts. Cho strongly suggests that, for all the history of language, for all one masters the grammar and usage of a language, and for all one might work to preserve and protect language, humans are tongue-tied when it counts and squander their lingual gifts just as they lose much of what they want by failing to find or simply say the right words to fight for, or even express, it.
That’s certainly George’s dilemma with Mary, and Emma’s plight with George.
Clarity, in the form of straightforward speech, comes from odd corners, a man Mary meets at a train station when she is fleeing reality and he is contemplating a gruesome suicide, or Emma’s sense-making Esperanto teacher.
You might wonder how “The Language Archive” can be so glib and unfinished as you read how rich and generous it is in concepts. Cho certainly covers a lot of territory and makes some astute observations (more than Rosenstock, D’Amour, or Holter mentioned earlier).
True though it is when Cho comes up with a solid concept, it’s usually a gem, the rub is she doesn’t do so often or consistently enough. Rather than build on concepts, “The Language Archive” dabbles in conceits, the literary kind with clashing matches and metaphors. The cleverness of Cho’s conceits cannot be denied. She is definitely on to something and understands it. She undeniably has something genuine and worth hearing to say. But like her romantic characters, she doesn’t come right out with it. The inspired concepts and conceits never coalesce into a cohesive play. “The Language Archive” becomes a mess, a loveable, listenable, well-performed mess, but a mess nonetheless. It’s the best in a spate of new plays that have inaugurated the New Year (excluding Bruce Graham’s “Funnyman” which started life at Bristol Riverside before dazzling at the Arden, and sharing some virtues with Diaz’s “#TheRevolution” at InterAct), but it is also the most scattered and riddled with loose ends. Cho has so much to say, it’s hard to her to find a package to put it all in, so she gives us episodes that show the inadequacy of language even among linguists, the danger of withholding feelings or information, the ugliness of letting feelings out, the value of chance encounters, the relative importance of preserving a language, and a bright look into the advent of Esperanto, an intended universal language. The ride is sweet. It does not bore. But it has no payoff. You are amused by the romantic characters, but you are never invested in their fates. You see how the sabotage themselves while purporting to get what they want, but you’re not moved on affected by it. You just take it in. One look on Twiss’s disappointed face as Alta earns more empathy than anything that happens to George, Emma, or Mary in the entire play. Cho has to marry her intellect with depth. She needs to find a dramatic, rather than cerebral point to her story and find a way to make more emotional so we respond to all of “The Language Archive” as we do to Twiss’s wounded spouse or versatilely learned Esperanto instructor.
Irungu Mutu has qualities as an actor that draw you to him. Even when George is being gratuitously disagreeable to Mary, you like him because of the naïve, scholarly innocence, or short-sightedness with which Mutu endows him. He conveys a George that means well but has language get in the way of explaining a situation or for asking for what he wants. His testiness with Mary is less indifference or cruelty than an inability to express something is wrong in their marriage or a means to avoid a serious discussion of it.
As in “The Convert” at the Wilma (2013), Mutu exudes sincerity and the intention to do good, even when his beliefs or idea of good doesn’t mesh with facts at hand.
Julianna Zinkel has to work to find a persona for Mary, the least defined of Cho’s characters. We see why she is discontent, but Mary seems to exist in “The Language Archive” for us to learn more about George than for any purpose singular to her. Zinkel gives her a quiet, creative spirit that serves the character well in later scenes in the play when Mary finds a means other than language to express herself.
Tiffany Villarin is nicely straightforward as Emma, a woman who endures the shocks and slights of unrequited affection in silence before a timely bit of encouragement motivates her to pursue her desires.
Keith Baker and Jo Twiss, playing a variety of older characters, reveal the soul of “The Language Archive.” Their characters are too old and too experienced to let language, especially language used for tact or to obscure a life-changing thought, get in their way. Baker is brilliant as the immovable Resten, both in the scene in which he refuses Alta’s food and in the sequences which show him fighting for life in a hospital, happy to speak calmly to Alta in their conciliatory native language. He is also excellent in scenes as men who influence two young women’s lives.
Jo Twiss is extraordinary as both the suffering but loving Alta and the Esperanto teacher who sets Emma on a constructive path. Both Baker and Twiss take time in their scenes and use inflection to make Cho’s language sound more natural and profound. Twiss uses his skill to a remarkable extent in the sequence when the teacher tells not only Emma, but the “Language Archive” audience, something that all of us should take to heart and practice in any endeavor, including love. Twiss rivets you. She not only makes you attend to every word, she makes you eager to hear what comes next.
Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set, with its floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with white, cardboard, lidded storage boxes containing linguistic data, rouses curiosity even before Paul Kilsdonk’s clever lighting illuminates it in Scene One. Van Velsor makes the shelves seem as plausible in George’s home as they are in his lab while Kilsdonk is adept as isolating parts of the stage with lighting when a rare important conversation arises between two of the characters.
Karen Graybash’s sound design plays a major role, especially when George reveals a mixed tape he’s made of love declarations in hundreds of languages. Kristen Isola did a fine job on costumes, even if her choices for Zinkel’s Mary make her look at little new age and eccentric, especially when he dons a flowered (and floured; Mary’s a baker) apron over her loose white top and pinkish yoga pants.
“The Language Archive” runs through Sunday, February 14, at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street (adjacent to the Delaware River), in Bristol, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $47 to $37 and can be obtained by calling 215-785-0100 or by visiting www.brtstage.org.