In a play about linguistic nuance, the preservation of language, and communication in general, the funniest — and most poignant — sequence is non-verbal.
An ill and elderly man (Keith Baker) sits quietly and warily at one end of a table. He and his equally aged wife (Jo Twiss) share the distinction of being the last surviving couple that speaks a language destined for extinction at their passing. A dedicated linguist (Irungu Mutu) has flown them to his American university at some expense to record them conversing in the doomed tongue, but his plans are thwarted by the pair feuding in mangled English, the only language the two say is suited to express the bitter rancor they are spewing.
The crux of the argument is the woman’s cooking, specifically a stew she has prepared for them to eat during their travel. The man claims the thought of his wife’s concoction nauseates him. The woman proffers a plastic container of the stew, putting it before the man with a look that combines love, hope, and hurt. The man stares intently at the offering, and in the gesture that counts so much, puts his hand on the lid of the container and pushes it away, a challenging look of “There, poison me, will you?” hardening his smugly victorious face.
This instance of impasse, and of emotional injury, is common in Adam Immerwahr’s production of Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive” for Bristol Riverside Theater where Baker, Twiss, Mutu are doing subtle and lovely work along with castmates Tiffany Villarin and Julianna Zinkel. Baker’s timing in the described scene endows it with suspense and heartbreak. Twiss is a beacon of human warmth in several parts. Mutu is charming as a man befuddled by so much that should be clear in his personal and professional lives. Immerwahr and his remarkable cast catch and convey all Cho provides with wit and distinction. The sad problem is “The Language Archive” doesn’t warrant all of their care and excellence.
Cho’s play is one of ideas. Several of them are good, but even these seem sporadic and of a specific moment rather that continuous and evolving in a way that would give “The Language Archive” texture or earn it our anticipatory interest.
“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 — that mistake random bits of whimsy, humor, and even insight for careful thematic development and engrossing, substantial storytelling.
Baker and Twiss may make the most of opportunities Cho allows for “The Language Archive” to be moving or affectingly human. Mutu may entice us to care about his lovelorn, disappointed linguist by his ingenuous manner and quest to understand why so much around him goes awry. None of this gives “The Language Archive” a solid core. It remains a work of shreds 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 combine for a satisfying theatrical, or literary, experience.
Cho is lucky to have Immerwahr and his cast 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 speech in which she is a another linguist, an Esperanto instructor, giving Villarin’s character wise and motherly advice is touching and priceless. But Immerwahr can only make “The Language Archive” entertaining. For all of his fine work, he can’t get Cho’s script off the ground. It is too disjointed and unfocused for that.
It also does a lot of its most important work in passing. “The Language Archive” is very much about romance, and the failure of language to be used at its most effective, if at any level effective, in the crucial moments of a relationship.
Mutu’s George collects language. Villarin’s Emma is his assistant, as ardent as he about linguistics, and ardent towards him. Yet neither thinks to express his or her feelings.
George has an excuse. He is married, but he is more inept in expressing his sentiments, or affection, to his wife than he is with anyone. Few in “The Language Archive” are direct or articulate about communicating what they want or mean. The spatting couple who threaten to cast their language to oblivion are the most eloquent at revealing their deepest and most immediate thoughts. Cho suggests strongly that for all the history of language, and for all one might work to learn and protect language, humans are tongue-tied when it counts and lose much of what they want by not finding the words to fight for, or even express, it.
That’s certainly George’s dilemma with his wife, Mary (Zinkel), and Emma’s plight with George.
Clarity comes from odd corners — a man Mary meets at a train station when she is fleeing reality, and he is contemplating suicide, or Emma’s Esperanto teacher.
When Cho comes up with a solid concept, or a colorful character, they’re usually gems. 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, but their usefulness never cohesively materializes, so “The Language Archive” becomes a mess, a lovable, well-performed mess, but a mess nonetheless.
Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set, with its shelves of storage boxes containing linguistic data, rouses curiosity before Paul Kilsdonk’s clever lighting comes up during the first scene. Karen Graybash’s sound design plays a major role, especially when George makes a mixed tape of love declarations. Kristin Isola did a fine job on the costumes, even if her choice for Zinkel makes Mary look a little new age and eccentric, especially when she dons a flowered (and floured; she’s a baker) apron.
The Language Archive, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, February 14. Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. $37 to $47. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.