Silence is more meaningful than noise in The Language Archive, Julia Cho’s sentimentally sad show in performances at the Roundabout Theater Company’s Laura Pels Theater. Cho’s play tells the story of George (Matt Letscher), a linguist, and his wife Mary (Heidi Schreck) who abruptly leaves him. The obvious irony of George struggling to articulate his feelings, despite his professional study of languages, is the core of this play which seems to believe that two people in love speak their own language that is incomprehensible to anyone else.
George and his besotted assistant Emma (Betty Gilpin) work in the titular Language Archive, and their current project involves recording a married couple who speak a language that, other than them, is extinct. The couple, Alta (Jayne Houndyshell) and Resten (John Horton), only speak this language to each other when they are in love. When they are angry, they speak English, because, as they explain, English is the language of anger. The two seem to have a great deal of anger towards each other as they bicker ceaselessly, much to the amusement of the audience. Their marital squabbles always possess a core of affection, and in their more quiet moments, Alta and Resten present a reassuringly sweet portrait of a lengthy marriage. (Houndyshell and Horton also play several other roles throughout the play and are equally impressive and amusing in each of them).
The opposite of this relationship is presented by George and Mary. Prior to Mary’s departure, she was crying continuously and leaving George cryptic poems in various locations of their house. Bewildered by Mary’s departure, George spends a great deal of the play crying or curled up in a ball on the floor of the stage. Unable to articulate why she is leaving him, Mary comes across as somewhat cold and unsympathetic, but Schreck manages to give her some heart in the later scenes of the play when she is able to express herself better. Letscher’s performance as George is extremely heartfelt and he depicts his pain and sadness very well. However, the character himself is written as somewhat dense and unperceptive, especially to the feelings of Emma.
Hopelessly in love with Carl, Emma is learning to speak Esperanto, an almost extinct language that George gives the audience an impromptu lesson of at the beginning of the second act. As she struggles to gain the courage to tell George how she feels, it becomes a bit frustrating to witness George’s obvious oblivion to her feelings. Gilpin gives a heartfelt performance as Emma, and the pure joy she feels when George embraces her at the end of Act One is impressive.
The question of whether the two will live happily ever after hovers throughout the second act, but the play’s ending is unsatisfying and the message Cho is attempting to establish with the show is not clear. While the characters’ silence is a meaningful part of the play, I left the theater longing for more conversation.