Piven Theatre Workshop. By Julia Cho. Directed by Polly Noonan. With ensemble cast. 1hr 30mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
Affection, among more fundamental things, gets lost in the translation in Julia Cho's romantic dramedy about a middle-aged couple struggling to articulate their needs. George (Paul Fagen), an anthropologist who specializes in preserving endangered languages, takes solace from the widening romantic drift at home by immersing himself in his studies. His wife, Mary (Abigail Boucher), takes a more cryptic approach to projecting her discontent by leaving obtuse poems on sticky notes around the house and office.
It's not for a lack of effort that George is unable to read Mary's unhappiness for what it is, nor is it a lack of will that prevents her from communicating what is missing to her husband—and that's the most authentic and frustrating truth in Fagen and Boucher's tender performances, as well as Polly Noonan's production for Piven Theatre. Fagen's meek, passionate and introverted George is often direct to no avail, and comes to life the most when he tells us that entire cultural identities are saturated in a people's speech. Like romances, we're told, languages hold shared histories and unique names for moments and desires that lose their meaning when they can no longer be passed on. Naturally, he takes a particular interest in Esperanto, a mostly defunct but idyllic universal language.
So does his assistant, Emma (Emily Tate), who similarly romanticizes the idea of unhindered communication. There's more than one affair of the heart packed into Cho's 90-minute two-act, and they all fall within the same lines of vague yearning. Cho illustrates these points more literally through George's research subjects, a bitter elderly couple and sole speakers of a lost language (Torrey Hanson and Caron Buinis) who refuse to speak to one another, because the other metaphors weren't enough.
Too often, genuine heartache is portrayed through twee gimmicks. When Emma confides her love for George to her language coach, only Emma speaks in English—the coach responds entirely in Esperanto. The source of the elderly man's frustration? His wife's cooking.
What makes Cho's contrivances so frustrating is how disproportionate the payoff is to their distractions. In a play about difficult communication, it's the obvious points that get muddled.