A communications-challenged linguistics expert occupies the center of “The Language Archive” by award-winning playwright Julia Cho (“Aubergine” and “Office Hours” in recent seasons at Berkeley Repertory Theatre). It’s a sweetly endearing opening act of the 50th anniversary season at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.
George (Jomar Tagatec) is dedicated to preserving languages at risk of extinction. He lives in the rarely heard tongues of indigenous people from far-flung corners of the globe but cannot express to his wife Mary (Elena Wright) that he loves and needs her.
His lab assistant Emma (Adrienne Kaori Walters) is equally tongue-tied in expressing her unrequited love for George. This despite learning Esperanto, the international language invented in the 19th century by Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof (who makes a brief appearance in the play), as a way to please him.
The triangle spins each of these characters in new directions simultaneous with the arrival of Alta (Emily Kuroda) and Resten (Francis Jue), who come to document their language for George before it dies with them.
It all sounds tragic, and real and potential loss is ever-present, but director Jeffrey Lo also mines all the comic undercurrents, particularly in the freewheeling performances of Jue and Kuroda, who also play other roles.
As the last known speakers of Elloway, from a country never named, Alta and Resten hysterically thwart George’s plans by getting into a marital spat causing them to speak only English because “English is the language of anger.”
Kuroda and Jue alternate between impish charm and classic Bickersons squabbling with superb timing. She also has a great time as a table-slamming Esperanto teacher and he as a cheerily suicidal baker.
Tagatec delivers a beautifully broken man, seemingly charming and affable but so self-conscious and emotionally stunted that when the break finally comes it overwhelms him and you feel it.
Walters travels a nicely nuanced path from ditzy “hopelessly devoted to you” romantic to caring and selfless friend who sacrifices her own desires to give the man she loves what he thinks he needs.
Wright travels a different arc to self-awareness, getting a new start with a starter of ancient yeast that bakes independence, self-sufficiency and a refreshing clarity into her profile.
Cho’s script, quirky and engaging from the start, falls a little flat when she tries to tie up loose ends with documentary-style direct narration about where each of the characters ultimately lands. Until then, it is a heartfelt exploration of the ways we struggle to communicate, and even the best words (and intentions) can fail us.
The Language Archive
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 4
Tickets: $30 to $100
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org