The Language Archive

So I saw this show last night called The Language Archive at one of the Roundabout Theatres.  It’s billed as a comedy, but for some reason I didn’t find it funny at all.  That bothered me.  In fact, I think it’s still bothering me.  Or maybe it’s just that freakish Craftastrophe I found this morning.

The play itself was a wonderfully written piece by Julia Cho.  In fact there were several lines of dialogue so beautiful I found it impossible to breathe.  The set was lovely and intriguingly creative with its use of space.  The cast, while not mind blowing, was more than competent.  Yet for some reason, I walked out of that theater slightly annoyed, like the show had turned into a sharp-cornered tag on the inside of my favorite undershirt, scratching relentlessly against my skin but never quite painful enough to justify finding a pair of scissors to cut it out.

Melancholy.  That’s how I felt when I walked out of that theater.  And I’m not even sure why.  I just know I don’t much care for melancholy.

As a lover of words myself, I found the basic premise captivating enough – a linguist intent on preserving disappearing languages i unable to find the words to tell his wife he loves her.  Even Sylvia Plath could have seen the potential for comedic hijinks in such a setup.  Yet with each passing scene I felt myself sinking further into my seat, wrapping my coat a little tighter around myself tighter.

After the wife leaves the husband, she finds herself at a train station, unsure of her next steps and destination.  She meets an old man, equally bereft and confused.  They begin talking and he confides that his plan is to throw himself in front of the next train.  She convinces him to instead go deeper into his sadness, to metaphorically walk into an even darker place of sadness because, “Sometimes you can feel so sad, it begins to feel like happiness.  And you can be so happy that it starts to feel like grief.”

Am I right?  You’re doubled-over with laughter right now, aren’t you?

In this tender and beautifully written moment, the train blows by and the wife asks the old man, “Why didn’t you jump?”

He answers, “I don’t know.  I still might tomorrow.”

Cue the laugh track.

There’s a sub story about an old couple, the last surviving speakers of a language said to be the most beautiful ever spoken.  The linguist has flown them in from their homeland so that he can record a spoken conversation before they die and their language is lost forever.  At one point, the linguist’s assistant asks the older woman how to say, “I love you,” in her language.  She replies that there is no literal translation, instead they say, “Don’t leave me,” because that is what love means to them.  “I do not want to be left by you.”

*slaps knee*  Whew!  I tell you these jokes would KILL at an open mic night.

Comedy or not, the play still has me thinking – which, I suppose, is the mark of a true piece of art, right?  And so I sit here on this cloudy day wallowing in my big pile of melancholy.  And as my brain churns, I can’t get this song out of my head.  It reminds me of the play – so beautiful and earnest it becomes both sadness and joy at the same time.

Here’s the highfalutin NYTimes review if you’d like to know what a real critic thought of the show.

I’m sure I’ll have a bangin’ vagina joke by tomorrow.  Then again, I hear they’re considering adding a vagina column at the Times, too.  I made that last part up, FYI.


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19 thoughts on “The Language Archive

  1. Any song sung in French is by definition melancholy. I think it is a law. Even when meant to be funny, there’s that tinge of “eh – this is transitory. just wait, it’ll get worse”.

    You could so write a vagina column. Expect a call from the NYT lifestyles editor tomorrow.

  2. Sounds like a laugh riot! But other than being misrepresented, it sounds like a great play and vaguely familiar, though I can’t figure out why…

  3. best analogy i’ve read in a long time, elly: “like the show had turned into a sharp-cornered tag on the inside of my favorite undershirt, scratching relentlessly against my skin but never quite painful enough to justify finding a pair of scissors to cut it out.”

    also i see what your saying about beautiful dialogue. this one really struck a chord with me: “Sometimes you can feel so sad, it begins to feel like happiness. And you can be so happy that it starts to feel like grief.”

    i liked your review much better than the highfalutin NYT one. i got melancholy from you, quite clearly.

    and since all of this literary and theatrical review has made me feel smart and enlightened, i’d like to bring it back down by saying:

    elly, you certainly are a cunning linguist.

  4. I think I have a good handle on comedy, and that, my dear, does not sound like it.

    Every once in a while I’d walk out of a NYC play and feel pissed off – it either meant the play hit me at my core or was just awful.

    A lot of times, it was just awful.

    1. I really think the play was good. Very good. I’m still not certain about the production But seeing as how I’m still thinking about it two days later, it couldn’t have been all wrong. Right? Oh my head.

  5. “a sharp-cornered tag on the inside of my favorite undershirt, scratching relentlessly against my skin but never quite painful enough to justify finding a pair of scissors to cut it out” One of the best metaphors I have ever read.

    Are you working on that book of yours? ’cause I’ve got my highlight pencils ready to underline passages that I love and will read out loud to anybody that will listen. (Yes I am a dork in this sense)

    Thank you so much for this detailed review, I wonder whether the script has been published because based on your description, I may prefer to read the play itself just because of the words alone are enough to throw me down that dark spiral… and I don’t want bad acting to ruin it (just kind of expecting it to be ruined IF it ever gets transplanted here in Chicago…)

    I remember seeing this non-English Western movie pre-1993, it is a fiction about the last survivor of an Australian tribe. Because he is the last person who knows the language, he cannot talk to anybody. I still remember the sadness vividly until this day.

  6. I love New Yorkers, even the highly educated and thus snarky ones. Did you read the #3 comment by one Mr. Eddy Jay for the NYT review? “This brave production is not aimed at the lowest common denominator. WIcked is eight blocks up.” Ouch. LOL.

  7. I thought that whole thing was funny. Maybe I’m reading it wrong?
    Anyway patty got to the cunning linguist bit before I did so now I’m just melancholy because I’m slow and witless.
    Craftastrophe helps me get my head out of the oven though.

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