“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”
Gustave Flaubert wrote that, in his classic novel “Madame Bovary.” But the same line would slide neatly into Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive.”
Cho’s diverting Off Broadway play, now having its local debut in an agreeable, articulate staging by Shana Bestock at Seattle Public Theater, reflects on the beauty and limits of words, and the nature of love.
George (the versatile Mike Dooly) is a linguist who specializes in recording and cataloging languages that are on the verge of extinction.
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Ask this preoccupied, middle-aged academic about his work, and he’ll wax eloquent about how the loss of a language means the tragic vanishing of an entire way of life.
But when his despairing wife, Mary (the radiant Candace Vance) tries, opaquely at first and then directly, to elicit some expression of deep feeling from him, George clams up. In Dooly’s poignant portrayal, George blinks and gulps and twitches, but can’t voice (or even fathom) what’s in his heart. Nor can his wife find the words to ask for what she needs to hear.
The disconnect between speech and emotion and expectation is not an uncommon subject for a romantic comedy. Nor is unrequited love. But Cho’s wry whimsicality, and compassion for her fallible characters, gives these familiar dilemmas a tender lilt.
While George is so inept at communicating his love for Mary that she leaves him (to his shock and distress), his prim work assistant Emma (the winning Heather Persinger) stifles her own amorous feelings — for him. That begins to shift too, though not entirely as one might assume.
Cho inserts strangers who serve as life counselors and guides for this trio, an entertaining gambit — though, in the end, a somewhat cloying one.
Julie Jamieson and John Murray are delightful as an elderly village couple from some (unnamed) foreign country, brought by George to his lab so he can record their disappearing mother tongue. But they arrive bickering, cursing at one another in English, because “it’s the language of anger,” and their native tongue is too mellifluous and musical for arguing. (Take that, English-speakers!)
Mary, perplexed about where and how to start her new life, meets a sagelike older stranger, who literally hands her the keys to a future. And Emma’s worldly Esperanto instructor (also Jamieson, as a madcap German) presses her to move on.
Cho’s own command of language is playful and poetic. But the second act is overstocked with teachable-moment monologues, fables illustrating the true meaning of love and marriage. They add some syrupy notes of preciousness.
Often when it isn’t trying too hard, “The Language Archive,” really does touch the heart, as Bestock and company bring out its humor and pathos.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org