Theater archives

The Language Archive and Driving Miss Daisy Offer Bittersweet Fables


Julia Cho’s last play produced here, The Piano Teacher, centered on a sinister character, unseen on stage, who abused vulnerable children by telling horrific fables. Now Cho herself has written a fable, but The Language Archive (Laura Pels Theater), this year’s Blackburn Award winner, turns out to be about as charming, beautifully wrought, and un-horrific as a fable can get. Modest in its ambitions, small in scope and, as fables tend to be, slightly abstract, it has a bittersweet hardheadedness that keeps its charm from lapsing into sentimentality, and a verbal tang that makes even its more predictable turns fun to relish in performance. Though probably not a great play, it’s a sturdy one, likely to last.

Language, here, becomes Cho’s metaphor for love. (What writer would disagree?) She perceives the myriad signs and sounds built up between any two people in a relationship as a tongue only they speak, which lives or dies with their relationship. Hence her world is metaphorically littered with forgotten languages. Naturally, Cho’s hero, George (Matt Letscher), is a linguist by profession, supervising an archive that works to preserve real-world languages before their last remaining speakers die out. For him, verbal exactitude is everything; only words, which carry specific meanings, can convey love. Inevitably, he misses the deeper opposite truth: Between two people, it’s love that conveys words.

While George struggles to save the semantic treasure of a language spoken by only two remaining people, a quarrelsome married couple (Jayne Houdyshell and John Horton), he ignores or puzzles over the unspoken, fragmented expressions of his wife, Mary (Heidi Schreck), desperate to fathom how much he actually loves her, and of his assistant, Emma (Betty Gilpin), striving even more desperately to convey her passion for him and simultaneously conceal it. Echoing those woes, the couple he is recording abruptly stop speaking to each other. And he, poor schnook, oblivious to all these warning signals, spends his time trying to teach us Esperanto, a language invented, by a linguistics professor, to be permanent and universal, whereas any given couple’s love, worse luck for George, is temporal and personal. At the end, he has lost both the language he thought he treasured and the deeper one he didn’t realize he knew.

Like any structured activity, language is in part a game, and Cho finds many playful diversions with which to drape the stark skeleton of this somberly comic tale. Mary tucks into household objects, for George to discover, gnomic, surrealist notes that she denies having written; Emma leaves declarations of love on his recording apparatus. The exotic couple whose language he’s attempting to preserve spout native insults and anathemas, anglicized into hilarious translationese. Wittily, Neil Patel’s set reinforces Cho’s theme: At intermission, its seemingly realistic array of book-laden library shelves gets stripped away, revealing, in silhouette, a bare but enchanting sculptural backdrop, a visual equivalent of “deep structure” in syntax.

Mark Brokaw, who often directs verbally bright, bittersweet comedies like this one, tends to take their bitter side a touch too sweetly for my taste, and does so again here. His production skates gracefully over the play’s varicolored surface, acknowledging its darker tones but rarely letting them show through at full strength. Only when Houdyshell and Horton, two skilled hands with years of inner experience to draw on, let loose their verbal crossfire do Cho’s words start to feel as though they came from the ground up, and the savor of their poetry hits the air. Letscher, a capable and appealing, if slightly mechanical, comic actor, can’t muster sufficient emotional weight to balance their force, which leaves Schreck and Gilpin cut off, compelling each to work in isolation—an ironic echo of their characters’ problems. But at least this shortfall reinforces the play’s substance instead of diluting it.

A similar imbalance, though with no attendant shortfall, affects the Broadway revival of Alfred Uhry’s 1987 play, Driving Miss Daisy (Golden Theatre), the original Off-Broadway production of which made Dana Ivey an official heroine of the New York stage and, ultimately, established Morgan Freeman as a major film star. Uhry’s work details the prickly path to friendship between Daisy (Vanessa Redgrave), a touchy, elderly Jewish widow in Atlanta, and Hoke (James Earl Jones), the patient but prideful African-American whom Daisy’s businessman son (Boyd Gaines) hires to chauffeur her when her increasing lack of motor coordination becomes potentially hazardous.

Uhry’s sad-sweet tale, like Cho’s, is sturdily built, in short, sharply pointed scenes, ingeniously chosen to alternate moments of the kinship that Daisy and Hoke share, as outsiders in the white South of the pre–civil rights era, with equally telling moments that highlight their differences—of gender, class, and individual outlook as well as of ethnicity. As the play moves forward in time, and equality becomes at least a legal reality for Southern blacks, complications increase, but so do bonds; the pair’s final conciliation is fully earned, a matter of lived history, not an author’s sentimental gesture.

What unbalances David Esbjornson’s sensitively shaped production is, improbably, Redgrave: Her painstakingly detailed quietude and delicacy as Daisy, carefully underplayed to fit what’s probably a quite valid concept of the era’s notion of ladylike gentility, put the character in a softer focus, reducing her power. And though Daisy can’t drive the car, she must drive half the play. Instead, Redgrave’s results, though never false, seem cautious and deferential. She leaves the way open for Jones, who builds from his own distinctive persona a spectacularly solid performance of Hoke, wholly different from Freeman’s unforgettable work yet every bit as convincing. Even more surprisingly, Redgrave’s reticence grants space for Gaines to render Daisy’s son, Boolie—no more than a necessary functionary in earlier productions—as a figure of both three-dimensionality and significance.

Esbjornson, to whom these two powerhouse performances undoubtedly owe something, has, like Redgrave, been discreet. He deploys extensive scenic apparatus, including projections by Wendall K. Harrington that paint the environment realistically, but does it with such skillful understatement that Uhry’s lovely small-scale work feels enriched rather than overwhelmed.