In the opening scene of nationally acclaimed playwright Julia Cho’s lovely and lyrical “The Language Archive,” a 2009 play now at Symmetry Theatre Company, scholarly linguist George (Gabriel Grilli) tell us that his wife, Mary, cries incessantly. She also stashes cryptic, poetic little notes around the house, which she refuses to acknowledge.
At scene’s end, Mary (Elena Wright) informs George that she’s leaving him.
George is fluent in multiple languages, living and dead, and the potentially universal tongue Esperanto. But when it comes to the language of love in his native English, all he can mutter in response is a pallid “Don’t go.”
Mary promptly goes.
An unpredictable chain of events follows over the course of multiple scenes plus occasional monologues delivered to the audience. We track George’s and Mary’s individual life journeys, as well as the emotional journey of George’s devoted and lovelorn lab assistant, Emma (Danielle Levin), who is struggling to learn Esperanto.
Stacy Ross and Howard Swain play several sharply drawn peripheral characters, both mythical and humorous, who affect those three separate journeys in profound ways.
In one broadly comic scene, George and Emma attempt to record the speech of an elderly couple, the last living speakers of a dead language. But, engaged in a bitter marital squabble, they will only speak to each other in English, the “language of anger,” explains the wife to George. “Our language is too sacred!”
Later, describing the vagaries of their lost mother tongue, she says that “don’t leave me” means “I love you.”
These are only a few of Cho’s many sly and resonant riffs on the ways that language aids us, betrays us and confounds us, in love and in life.
With all the light charm of a fable — nicely reflected in some of the fanciful set pieces and Jessica Powell’s vaguely 1950s, out-of-time costumes — Cho’s play cries out for a magical atmosphere.
But director Chloe Bronzan, adept at finding the humor and poignancy in the relationships, hasn’t found a way to create that atmosphere in the confines of the Berkeley City Club’s small and awkward space.
Too many distracting set changes, too many locales crammed simultaneously and confusingly onto the playing area, too many clumsily handled props, too much physical business — all detract from the actual words themselves. And this play is all about the eloquence, and the inherent and contradictory opacity, of words.
Presented by Symmetry Theatre Company
Where: Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes April 28
Tickets: $20 to $28
Contact: (415) 377-0457, www.symmetrytheatre.com