BOTTOM LINE: It’s like watching an indie movie on a stage. The Language of Trees is a captivating story about realistic people thrown into an extreme situation.
The Language of Trees is the second installment in Roundabout Theatre’s new audience initiative, Roundabout Underground. The idea behind Underground is to bring affordable, accessible new theatre to a younger, hipper audience while at the same time giving new artists a place to grow and develop their work. Last year’s Speech & Debate was the first performance in the series, and it was welcomed with glee by both critics and audiences. The Language of Trees is much deeper in context than Speech & Debate, but it resonates with the same connectivity.
Written by Steven Levenson and directed by Alex Timbers, Language follows a family in the midst of a crisis. Set in 2003, dad Denton (Michael Haydon) goes to the Middle East to work as a translator in the Iraq war. His wife Loretta (Natalie Gold) and seven-year-old son Eben (Gio Perez) wait for him at home. Nosy neighbor Kay (Maggie Burke) nuzzles in and offers to assist the family since Denton is away; it turns out she’s lonely too. When Denton’s situation overseas becomes volatile, Loretta, Eben, and Kay are left to rely on each other for support.
Roundabout Underground’s Black Box Theatre at the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre is intimate and personal. As the name implies, it’s a small, dark space with low ceilings; the stage is only a few inches higher than the floor and only a few feet away from the first row of seats. As a result, it’s hard as an audience member to distance yourself from what’s playing out in front of you. The Language of Trees is sincere and powerful; you feel for these characters as they struggle to deal with their loss and move on with their lives, especially as you sit so close to the drama. In such a cozy space, the experience is much more vivid and palpable.
The play has some wonderful moments. Levenson’s script is smart and well written, bringing the characters to life. It’s not really laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s touching and chuckle inducing at times. Overall the performances are great, especially Gio Perez as the precocious Eben. The clever set design uses the small space to its advantage, and the lighting and direction are also well utilized to expand the scenic necessities required to show multiple sets in locations a world apart. The production is acutely presented, and makes for a quality night of theatre — you definitely get your money’s worth for only $20.
The show is not without problems, though, in particular some emotional holes in the plot (e.g. “Shouldn’t that character be sadder?”) and age discrepancies (Gio Perez looks 17, not 7 — I’m warning you now so you won’t be distracted for 20 minutes like I was). But the little issues that arise are minor compared to the heart of the story. Levenson and Timbers are in their 20s, and their fresh take on theatre is energizing. They should be commended for their wonderful work on this show. The Language of Trees is provocative and engaging; it’s for those who like their entertainment with a side of intellect that doesn’t hit you over the head. And again, tickets are only $20.
The Language of Trees plays at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., between 6th and 7th Ave. Showtimes are Tue-Sun 7 PM and Sat-Sun 1:30 PM; the plays runs 1 hr. 40 min. with no intermission. Visit roundaboutunderground.org for more info and to buy tickets.