The Language Archive sounds a bit like a romantic comedy. Sad-sack linguist George has trouble communicating. His wife leaves him. His assistant pines for him.
Will George end up back with Mary, the woman with whom he spent so many years? Or with Emma, who has been learning a made-up language to better understand her boss?
Playwright Julia Cho isn't interested in a by-the-numbers rom-com. Instead, the play, which receives a handsome production at Park Square Theatre, subverts our expectations.
George, our linguist, lives for his work, but is worried about his wife. She seems to be sad all the time, and is given to leaving strange little poems pressed into George's books or dunked in his tea.
Then Mary leaves. As the emotionally distant linguist tries to process that fact, he also attempts to throw himself into the study of Alta and Resten, who have arrived from a far-off land. They are the last speakers of Ellowan, the kind of dying language George has dedicated his career to preserving.
They bring their own relationship troubles. In fact, their anger at each other keeps them from speaking their native tongue. Instead, they communicate in English — a language of anger, they say.
All the while, George is aided by Emma, his longtime assistant, who carries a secret flame for him. Her efforts to connect with her boss have led her to study Esperanto, the language invented by L.L. Zamenhof in the 19th century to bring about world peace.
The sort-of love triangle between George, Mary, and Emma moves the plot, but Cho is most interested in what's deep within each character. The one-liner concept — a play about a linguist who can't communicate — can be applied to everyone here. Kurt Kwan (George), Sara Ochs (Mary), and Emily A. Grodzik (Emma) provide relatable characters that carry their flaws near the surface.
Claudia Wilkens and Richard Ooms — the real-life couple playing Alta and Resten — could have easily pushed their absurd characters to cartoon levels with eccentricity and accents. But their bright, generically ethnic costumes hide two people who have lived a lifetime together, and are now unsure of what the last leg will bring.
This undercurrent matches the play's overall mood, both funny and tragic at the same time. The Language Archive often has sorrow and joy dancing together. Director Rich Shiomi, founder of Mu Performing Arts and a lauded local artist, makes his Park Square debut a memorable one, as he crafts a play that rolls out like a deep, late-night conversation, where friends finally reveal their true feelings about each other.
IF YOU GO:
The Language Archive Park Square Theatre 20 W. Seventh Pl., Minneapolis 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday $40-$60 Through May 31