In Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive,” premiering at South Coast Rep, a wistful wanderer is handed a magical box of starter – that living culture at the heart of all bread – and finds her baking raison d’etre. This year’s Susan Smith Blackburn prizewinner contains all manner of promising starters in its exploration of lovers’ communication barriers and bridges, but no matter how pungent the ingredients, they resist rising.
The titular facility is nominally the research lab of mild, myopic linguist George (Leo Marks) and pixieish, torch-carrying lab assistant Emma (Laura Heisler), devoted to recording the planet’s obscure tongues that disappear at the alarming rate of one every two weeks.
Urgency would seem the order of the day. But with the abrupt departure of George’s wife, Mary (Betsy Brandt) – “Say the right thing,” she tells him in a dream, “and maybe I won’t go” – lab work takes a back seat to the metaphor of language archive as repository of lovers’ private dialects, including idioms they themselves often mistranslate.
Six or seven story threads offer oases of piquant writing about words’ role in the timeless mating dance. Pride of place goes to Earth’s final speakers of “Elloway,” the elderly, vaguely Balkan Resten and Alta (Tony Amendola and Linda Gehringer), whose incessant domestic bickering jeopardizes George’s opportunity to record them. (“Our language is too sacred….Say mean, hateful, ugly thing – this is what English is perfect for.”)
Alta’s lovely detailing of Ellowan terms with no English equivalent (“man who act younger and younger as he gets older and older”) opens a window on the fascinations of linguistic analysis, as does George and Emma’s obsession with Esperanto as a means of cutting past universal misunderstandings. Its 19th-century inventor Zamenhof (Amendola), in fact, makes an appearance during one of several magical-realist journeys.
One waits for Elloway, Esperanto, breadmaking and arias on the endlessly repeated topic of sadness to click into place, but it all never quite jells into a satisfying whole. Partly that’s because under Mark Brokaw’s muted helming the cast skims over professed passions.
Heisler and Brandt substitute adorable quirkiness for emotional investment, and after chillingly detailing George’s reaction to Mary’s announcement (“Take it back – I’ll be a city in ruins”), Marks is thereafter essentially AWOL as a presence.
Moreover, too often the gap between behavior and attitudes seems a literary conceit. Mary faults George for leaving her at a remove, but then celebrates the wonder of having no ties. Besotted with love, Emma nobly sends the man she adores back to his past in a gesture smacking of a 19th-century potboiler.
In one tired trope, the desperate George ransacks his home for evidence of Mary’s whereabouts or motives (and will later rush to her side once she’s located). Yet when he finds a note with a potential clue, we’re expected to believe he puts it away unread. Here, as elsewhere, one glimpses the author’s hand rather than the character’s heart.
Neil Patel’s giant parallel bookcase walls are alternately loaded with scholarly tomes and rococo bric-a-brac to physicalize the characters’ academic and romantic clashes. But the backdrop is singularly unattractive, and the structures’ sliding back and forth doesn’t materially alter the stage space as seems intended.
Gotham’s Roundabout Theater Company is scheduled later this year to perform the work it commissioned.