Companies that go in for absurdist whimsy (a la Craig Lucas) might fall for “The Language Archive,” a dainty fable about the limits of language in matters of the heart, which won scribe Julia Cho the 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Mark Brokaw, who also helmed when play preemed at the South Coast Rep, brings a tender sensibility to this romantic fantasy about a linguist who can’t find words to tell his wife he loves her. But while the abstract themes are well-expressed, the stylistic artifice exposes a degree of sentimentality too cloying to be charming.
It’s only fitting that a play about language should be studded with pretty words and striking images. Cho (“The Piano Teacher”) is writing to her strength when the last speakers of a dying language are transformed into “two trees whose leaves whisper to each other all day long.” Or when a linguist who can’t express his feelings for his wife presents her with a tape he made of people speaking in extinct languages, “a symphony of voices that no longer exist, all saying the words, ‘I love you,’ in their own doomed tongues.”
But such original expressions don’t in themselves confer originality on the characters who utter them. Despite their offbeat fixation on languages living and dead, the emotionally stunted players in Cho’s romantic triangle are familiar figures.
George (Matt Letscher) may be a professional polyglot, but his inability to put two affectionate words together to save his marriage puts him in the ancient brotherhood of boorish stage husbands. His weeping wife, Mary (Heidi Schreck), who pours out her unhappiness in cryptic notes that George ignores, is a member of a vast sisterhood of neglected wives. George’s timid lab assistant, Emma (Betty Gilpin), who confides her secret passion for her oblivious boss to passing strangers, also has plenty of theatrical company.
While it can’t be easy playing such fragile souls, under Brokaw’s direction the three principal players seem unduly wary of further sentimentalizing them. But that’s a lost cause in this idiosyncratic play, and the subdued performance style dampens whatever quirky charm might have made these bland characters more appealing.
What really distinguishes Cho’s woebegone souls from their generic counterparts (and coincidentally makes them distant cousins of the repressed lovers now on Broadway in “Brief Encounter”) are the fanciful ways in which they express their frustrated yearnings. Neil Patel’s discreetly sliding set — a double wall of open-backed bookcases that direct the eye to an infinity of sky surreally lighted by Mark McCullough — allows plenty of room for their imaginations to roam.
Cho is adept at translating conventional actions — like Mary’s impulsive decision to become a baker and Emma’s resolution to learn a dead language — into eccentric behavior. But it’s George the scribe is really interested in, and she turns his obsession with recording and archiving endangered languages before they vanish forever into a series of piquant scenes with an old couple who are the last speakers on earth of a language called Elloway.
Unrestrained by Western neuroses, Resten (John Horton) and his wife, Alta (Jayne Houdyshell), are blessedly free to speak their hearts, which is precisely what the emotionally tongue-tied George worships about their earthy language. Costumed with colorful flair by Michael Krass and unburdened by the restrained performance style that inhibits the principals, troupers Horton and Houdyshell give the show a shot in the arm with spirited portrayals of these endearing eccentrics, while showing their versatility in several other vivid roles.
Although Cho is determined to use this unconventional couple to get across her basic thematic point — that love is a language that also needs to be practiced and protected or it, too, will wither and die — it’s just plain fun to watch these two old pros do their stuff.