By Larry Taylor/Garden Grove Journal
A language expert who has trouble communicating is at the center of Julia Cho’s entertaining romantic comedy, “The Language Archive,” now in its world premiere at South Coast Repertory.
George (likable, but unaware as played by Leo Marks) is a brilliant linguist, studying dying languages. As he says, “There are 6,500 languages; more than half expected to die.”
Meanwhile, he’s losing his wife, Mary (effectively played by Betsy Brandt). Emotionally needy, she just wants to hear him tell her that he loves her.
When cornered, though, George is unresponsive. He knows how to say “I love you” in dozens of languages but can’t utter it in English. It’s impossible to express love in words, he theorizes.
His comely young lab assistant, Emma (a shy but determined Laura Heisler), has a crush on George.
When she finds out his wife is leaving, she sees possibilities for herself.
At the heart of the play, though, is the fact that George has scheduled an interview with the only two people left in the world who speak Elloway, an elderly married couple.With recorders set up and much anticipation, he and Emma are prepared to interview them.
In an ironic twist, lack of communication is also an issue with the arrival of the two Ellowans, Resten and Alta (on-the-nose perfromances by SCR veterans Tony Amendola and Linda Gehringer).
From a backward country, vaguely East European, the two are in the midst of a tiff set off during their flight here. They do speak fluent English, but only English, when they fight.
They say that their language is too beautiful to use during disagreements. Alta is giving Resten the “ghost” treatment, ignoring him as a non-person.
For George the situation is indeed unfortunate. He can’t record because they won’t desecrate their language by talking when angry.
This makes for much fun with George trying to defuse the situation.
Also the play brings up the Esperanto language, invented in 1887 by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof.
It allows people who speak different native languages to communicate, at the same time retaining their own.
In the play, Emma is trying to learn Esperanto to impress George who speaks it. Ingeniously, the audience, itself, is given a lesson in this.
Throughout, playwright Cho laces the action with colorful language. For examples, Alta and Resten use vivid folk tales to make points, and George amusingly rants about such things as how “take out the garbage” can mean many things.
Director Mark Brokaw does a good job of moving the action through scenic designer Neil Patel’s shifting set, anchored by book-lined walls.
At one point, when the scene changes to a bakery, the shelves, cleverly, become filled with loaves of bread.
“The Language Archive” can be seen through April 25 on SCR’s Segerstrom Stage.