It’s certainly a possibility based on the play’s synopsis: A linguist is attempting to preserve a dying language spoken by just one couple who now refuses to talk to each other. At the same time, he doesn’t know what to say to keep his wife from leaving him, and doesn’t recognize how deeply his assistant cares for him.
In this reality, that’s only how The Language Archive starts out. But what begins as a relatively linear romantic dramedy evolves into a surreal, train-of-thought journey. It leads to a conclusion that’s not the easiest, but certainly more riveting.
And, at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, that logic is underlined with a production that sets up a clinical atmosphere and then fights against it at every turn.
Action simmers well below the boiling point, punctuated with outbursts and confessional asides. These moments, at first, provide much-needed excitement and comic relief from the overarching analytical tone. But soon, they become part of the rhythm for director Adam Immerwhar’s tension-and-release approach to the first act.
Nearly every actor gets their chance to shine here: Irungu Mutu as George reveals emotional turmoil through asides, in contrast with his inability to communicate with others. BRT regulars Keith Baker and Jo Twiss flex strong comedic muscles as a bickering husband and wife before turning in subtle, sentimental performances. Tiffany Villarin as the assistant, Emma, stays in the background before expertly leading a sudden, emotional climax.
It could end there: conflict and tension colliding and resolving in a single, melting moment. But then the second act breaks it apart and inspects the pieces in vignettes, dream sequences and chance encounters.
Julianna Zinkel, as the estranged wife, becomes more integral here as the story focuses more on love itself, in general and how it’s expressed. If the beginning of the play provides the heart of the story, the second act gives us the guts.
And, it all takes place with no set changes, set designer Jeffrey Van Velsor’s cavernous room where archival boxes fill towering shelves and we’re left to imagine the different settings. Those boxes, it should be noted, are painted the same color as the walls, shelves and doors. They’re meant to hold audio recordings of conversations in different languages, perhaps all the things George wishes he could say but can’t.
It’s as if we’re inside his brain: Those boxes like memories and ideas, and the few pieces of furniture — brown, in stark contrast to the pale green behind them — the nerve centers, catalysts for his thoughts and actions.
Or maybe it is just an archive: One where the records of each language contains, somewhere, as the play itself explores, without taking the easy romantic comedy route, the many ways to say “I love you.”
The Language Archive is playing at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St. in Bristol, through Feb. 14. For information, visit http://www.brtstage.org.