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There’s a long-running joke among journalists that despite being in the communications business, we tend to suck at interpersonal communication. In The Language Archive, playwright Julia Cho presents a linguist afflicted by a similar paradox. Hence the relationship problems that tongue-tie George, a middle-aged academic who can translate “I love you” into 100 languages but struggles to utter those same words to his own wife in English.
It’s a viable premise for this humorous two-hour drama from Forum Theatre, which once again has chosen a script that requires just the right amount of resources the small company can provide. The stage bisects the black box space, with giant tape reels at either end and the audience seated on both sides. (Robbie Hayes is the ingenious set designer; Thomas Sowers paid careful attention to the sound.) The show opens with George (Mitchell Hébert) describing his wife’s depressive habits, like crying while washing the dishes and leaving passive-aggressive notes about ballroom dancing lessons around the house. It’s immediately apparent this couple should engage the services of a good shrink. Instead, George is engaging the audience in a break-down-the-fourth-wall exercise, and setting us up for a show that indulges in fanciful whimsy to convey realities about relationships.
The trio of main characters—George, his estranged wife Mary (Nanna Ingvarrson), and his laboratory assistant Emma (Kate Atkinson)—have much to learn about life and love from a eccentric supporting cast of characters, all played by Kerri Rambow and Edward Christian. There’s always potential for problems when the minor characters elicit more empathy than the protagonists, and that’s true from the minute Rambow and Christian stumble onstage dressed like refugees from a Sigur Rós music video. Most often, they play Alta and Resten, a contentious couple flown in from an isolated Northern European village where they are among the last speakers of Elloway, their fictional native tongue.
But their flight over didn’t go smoothly, and by the time Resten and Alta arrive at the language lab, located at a nameless university reminiscent of Yale, a fight over who got the window seat has escalated into a near-divorce situation. After trading barbs worth the cost of admission—“My life is a beautiful and perfect apple and you are the worm that is eating its way through it”— they resolve never again to speak to each other. Ever.
You see where this is going. George and Emma, language experts who can’t communicate with their own romantic partners, must help mend the Ellowans’ marriage, otherwise their research cannot move forward. The show follows George, Mary, and Emma in episodic fashion, and it does drag sometimes. Mary’s run-in with a suicidal baker is rather maudlin, while Emma’s language lessons with Rambow, playing a German lesbian Esperanto teacher, approach hysterics. Do the performances and situational comedy add up to play that’s worthwhile? Yes, yah, oui, and kutime. That last word is Esperanto. It loosely translates to “just about.”