Julia Cho's The Language Archive, now in a Symmetry Theatre production directed by Chloe Bronzan, is several different unfinished plays rolled into one. Only toward the end does it become the play it's supposed to be.
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At rise, George (Gabriel Grilli), a linguist, is narrating, a device Cho uses too sporadically for it to make structural sense. "Lately I've become worried about my wife," George tells us. Mary (Elena Wright) is a housewife who weeps all the time and leaves scraps of poetry around the house (or in George's tea), though she won't admit to it. George, ever the scientist, seems to think the solution to the problem is catching her in the act, as if evidence of her logical inconsistency would erase the emotional root of her problem.
That's about it for that plot thread. Cho writes Mary as if less is more, as if fully explaining Mary's melancholy and her dissatisfaction with her marriage would be superfluous. But rather than allowing the audience to use their imaginations, this choice leaves Mary a wisp of a character, more idea of a housewife than a full human being, too clichéd to care about.
The play moves to George's office, the language archive of the title, and introduces another set of clichés. Resten (Howard Swain) and Alta (Stacy Ross) are the last living speakers of an almost extinct Eastern European language. (This conceit will be familiar to fans of Shotgun Players' recent production of Precious Little.) They are an amalgam of the elderly parents in different Woody Allen movies, at once harsher and cuter than real couples, Old World unsentimentality made sentimental by the playwright's idealization. George and his assistant Emma (Danielle Levin) are attempting to record their speech, but the couple won't speak in anything but English. They're having a spat, and the language of anger, they explain, is English (presumably for the audience's benefit) -- until it's also the language of their affection and the pearls of wisdom they dispense which attempt to tie together disparate plot threads: "World disappear; language follow. No amount of talk will ever bring what is gone back."
Part of the problem with this play is that George is not a compelling protagonist. He never lets himself be influenced by anyone else; Mary's departure only makes him further hunker down in his cerebral world, where, he insists, he does have an emotional stake: "Life without Esperanto," he says, referring to the synthetic language popular with logophiles, "is unimaginable to me." Too bad he can't make that feeling contagious.
Further complicating the play's structure, Emma becomes the center of the action toward the end, an abrupt shift but a welcome one. Emma is also a cliché: the ingénue who's infatuated with her boss, who doesn't requite. But in Levin's rendering Emma has enough spirit and spunk to rip this gossamer play at the seams. She exaggerates her character's comic foibles in a way that subtly make fun of the sweet, clumsy breathlessness with which ingénues are supposed to pant every syllable.
Alas, she takes the reins too late to save this play from unraveling. Hopefully she'll be front and center -- and stay there -- in the sequel.
The Language Archive continues through Apr. 28 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Admission is $20-$28.