"The Language Archive" Is a Romantic Comedy About Dying Languages

The script borders on sugary, but the acting prevents the cutesiness from seeming over-the-top.

For its last show of the season, Portland Playhouse is very literally stepping out of their boundaries. Their theater of almost a decade, an old church in Northeast, is undergoing renovation, so they're staging The Language Archive at CoHo Theater's far more conventional space.

But part of what makes Portland Playhouse's productions so special is their imaginative staging that adapts to their non-traditional space, and the rom-com plot of The Language Archive is already fairly tame. George (Greg Watanabe) is a linguist who can speak several languages, but can't communicate with his wife, Mary (Nikki Weaver). It's the company's most detailed set this season: Behind a spiral staircase and balcony, there's a floor-to-ceiling shelf packed with tapes.

Along with his failing marriage, George has another problem: He's flown in Alta (Sharonlee Mclean) and Reston (Victor Mack), a married couple and the last two speakers of an imaginary language, Elloway, so he can record a conversation of the dying tongue—but when they arrive, they bicker in English and eventually refuse to speak to one another.

Despite the fact that it follows a failed marriage, The Language Archive is goofy and feel-good. The stage is often flooded with bright, sunny lighting. The audience mainly learns what's going on in George's head from out-of-scene monologues that seem intentionally indulgent. He begins one scene dramatically draped across the floor, head tilting backwards to the audience as he tells us what we already know: "I lie on the floor of the lab. For how long? I don't know."

The script borders on sugary, but the acting prevents the cutesiness from seeming over-the-top. Mack is highly capable both as a comedic and dramatic actor. Weaver implies Mary's emotional range with a shaky voice, and the corners of her mouth twitch in and out of a smile—you feel like she's always holding something back.

A man who feels that the death of languages is sadder than the death of people, George could easily seem unlikable. But Watanabe manages to make George both ridiculous and compelling. Besides, the play doesn't seem concerned with compromise so much as acceptance. In one scene, Reston tells George his views on marriage: "When you keep holding on, something amazing happens. We become too tired to change. We become who we really are." 

SEE IT: The Language Archive is at CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh St., portlandplayhouse.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, May 17-June 11. $25-$34.