The Language of Trees

MOTHER'S LITTLE HELPER Perez, center, tries to cheer up Gold.

MOTHER'S LITTLE HELPER Perez, center, tries to cheer up Gold. Photograph: Joan Marcus, 2008

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

The news flash is not that America has been hunkered down in Iraq, or that the surge may not have worked: It’s that New York stages are finally grappling with our wartime reality. Increasingly, we’re seeing dramas about today’s soldiers and their world, including Beast, In Conflict, Dying City and Palace of the End. Now Roundabout Theatre Company joins the corps with Steven Levenson’s semisurreal heart-tugger The Language of Trees.

Young couple Loretta and Denton (the appealing Natalie Gold and Michael Hayden) say their goodbyes as he ships off to Iraq in early 2003 to be an Arabic translator for a private military contractor. Denton’s not, he insists, a soldier. Nevertheless, soon after he lands in the hellish war zone, he’s taken prisoner and forced by his captors to denounce America. Denton is, you could say, translated into a military target.

Lest you peg The Language of Trees as just a soldier’s story, Levenson keeps most of the action on the home front, exploring how the depressed Loretta and her lonely, precocious son, Eben (surprisingly persuasive adult actor Gio Perez), deal with the father’s absence. There’s also a helpful yet invasive next-door neighbor (Maggie Burke), who exacerbates tensions. This material could easily have devolved into movie-of-the-week sappiness or soapbox preaching, but Levenson’s tools include sharp, slow-burning dialogue and startling levels of empathy. Politically charged domestic tragedy: a tricky patois, but the promising young writer speaks it fluently.

Roundabout Underground. By Steven Levenson. Dir. Alex Timbers. With ensemble cast. 1hr 30mins. No intermission.