BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Julia Cho won this year's prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Award for women playwrights for "The Language Archive." Among other top contenders for 2010 honors (and its $20,000 prize) were Melissa Jane Gibson's "This" and Annie Baker's "The Aliens," both of which were staged off Broadway last season to considerable applause.
Commissioned by Roundabout Theatre Company, "The Language Archive" opened on Sunday at the Steinberg Center. Anybody who enjoyed "This" and "The Aliens" may well wonder, as I do, what the Blackburn judges saw in Cho's goodhearted but strangely hazy play.
Obviously I don't get the play's finer points, so let's simply relate that "The Language Archive" centers on George (Matt Letscher), a linguist collecting the world's dying languages, his wife Mary (Heidi Schreck), who ceaselessly weeps and leaves George cryptic notes, and Emma (Betty Gilpin), his devoted lab assistant who hopes to nab George after Mary deserts him.
George's problem is that he knows everything about language but cannot find the words to express his love for Mary — or anybody else, really.
As the story oddly develops — recalling how Sarah Ruhl's plays often grow abstract in pursuit of higher meaning — Mary starts up in the bakery business while Emma, giving up on getting George, goes on a mysterious train journey where she meets the ghost of the guy who invented Esperanto.
While this main narrative drifts into enigmatic places, far more satisfying is the intermittent story of Alta (Jayne Houdyshell) and Resten (John Horton), an elderly couple from a remote culture who are the very last people to speak their idiom. George's latest archival discoveries, they are a bickering duo whose wrangling confounds the linguist's project. The passages here regarding the language of love prove as eloquent as the bulk of the play seems puzzling.
Staged by Mark Brokaw with a handsome Neil Patel setting of cluttered bookshelves, Cho's evasive play engages little interest aside from its down-to-earth sections involving the old folks. A wonderful actress ("Well," "The Pain and the Itch"), Houdyshell warmly invests grumpy Alta with a rich authenticity of being and later morphs, with similar verisimilitude, into a mittel-European teacher of Esperanto. The other actors pale by comparison, particularly Letscher, unable to animate George's passive character.
"The Language Archive" continues through Dec. 19 at the Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., New York. Call (212) 719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.