Julia Cho’s The Language Archive takes place within walls lined with the last recordings of dead languages. It’s either a deeply morbid or utterly romantic setting, but at least Portland Playhouse’s production manages to switch back and forth between those two moods often enough that they stop seeming different at all.
Mounted without missing a step at CoHo’s NW Raleigh theater while the Playhouse is renovated, The Language Archive centers on the man running the collection, George, a linguist. He’s played by Greg Watanabe with a veneer of cold disinterest punctured by momentary explosions of emotion, a doomed unflappability that alienates his wife and blinds him to “real life.” That’s fairly typical fictional scientist stuff, but Watanabe’s relentless enunciation and deadpan delivery make George more than a trope.
Many of the play’s characters address the audience in eloquent asides or soliloquies (often over unnecessary, goofily sentimental music). But none are quite as outwardly crippled by interiority as George. While he can’t convey a single emotional thought to his intensely and bafflingly sad wife Mary (Nikki Weaver), his addresses to the audience are part desperate confession of feeling and part lesson in linguistics—the world’s saddest TED Talk.
George’s assistant in the archive is the nervous, girlishly lovelorn Emma. Foss Curtis brings to Emma a mix of hilariously expressive rom-com awkwardness and a vulnerability so foundational it has the emotive force of children’s entertainment: When she’s happy, her giddiness agitates the air; when she’s sad, you feel like clapping to bring her back to life.
The two work with married couple Alta and Resten (Sharonlee McLean and Victor Mack), the last speakers of a dying (blessedly fictional) language. McLean and Mack play other small parts, too, and McLean’s range of funny accents and physical comedy recalls the calculated absurdity of greats like Peter Sellers. The couple bicker constantly—but only in English. This is because their language is beautiful and meaningful, and as “everyone knows,” English is for saying things you don’t mean.
That’s sort of the point: To the audience, the play’s three central characters—George, Mary, and Emma—speak with an efficient prettiness, but with each other, they barely share a common language. For a play about western academia archiving the dying languages of foreign cultures, it’s surprisingly apolitical, devoted almost entirely to this one metaphor. It’s a very easy, obvious meaning, and yet it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. The Language Archive is a romantic comedy light on both romance and comedy, but smart enough not to trip over its own conceit, and moving without compromising its intelligence.