November 29, 2008

Speaking Up for "The Language of Trees"

Go see The Language of Trees. I don’t usually give this kind of advice. And I’m not giving it now because this show is so terrific. It isn’t. But The Language of Trees is the second production in the Roundabout Underground, the new series that showcases the works of young playwrights in fully realized productions. And if those of us who love theater are serious about its future, then we ought to support these new voices.

Both my theatergoing buddy Bill and I had been impressed by Speech & Debate, the play about a trio of high school misfits that kicked off the series in January, and we were eager to see what else its 27 year-old playwright Stephen Karam would do and who else the series’ curator would discover.

The current answer to that second question is Steven Levenson, a recent graduate of Brown University who wrote The Language of Trees. At 24, Levenson is even younger than Karam and his work isn’t quite as polished. But it is more ambitious.

Levenson's play tells the dual stories of a translator who goes to work for a private contractor in Iraq and of the wife and seven-year old son he leaves behind. The action centers around what happens in both places when the father is kidnapped by terrorists.

The title comes from the promise the father makes that he will teach the boy how to talk to trees when he returns home from the war. It also refers to a Bertolt Brecht quote, “What times are these when a talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence on so many wrongs?” The play muses on the relationships between mothers and sons and those between countries. It combines naturalism and a touch of magical realism.

That’s a lot to pack into 90 minutes. And Levenson is only partly successful. His decision to have the precocious boy played by an adult actor (Gio Perez doing better than you might expect) comes off as silly at times. A buttinsky neighbor (Maggie Burke doing exactly what she should) grates even more than she is supposed to. The fact that the confused and grieving wife (Natalie Gold doing the most nuanced work) is left to fend for herself makes no sense in our media-circus society. And yet, the play asks smart questions about serious subjects and there are moments, like those with the imprisoned father (an affective Michael Hayden,) that click.

Director Alex Timbers, aided by set designer Cameron Anderson, lighting designer David Weiner and sound designer M.L. Dogg, creates a production that matches the play’s ambitions and that is far bigger than you’d expect to find in the Underground’s 60-seat Black Box Theatre. It’s the kind of production any young playwright would trade a couple of thousand Facebook friends to get. (Click here to see a spoiler-heavy infomercial about it.)

Levenson won the lottery this time out and his prize is running through Dec. 14. Go see it. At just $20 a ticket, you can’t really lose and theater lovers of the future may end up big winners.

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