BOTTOM LINE: like watching an indie movie at a small theatre. The Language of Trees is a captivating story about realistic people thrown into an extreme situation.
The Language of Trees is the second installation of 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, The Language of Trees 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 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; turns out Kay is lonely and needy too. When Denton's situation overseas becomes volitile and terrifying, Loretta, Eben and Kay are left to cope and rely on each other for support.
The nature of Underground's black box theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center is intimate and personal. 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; it's impossible not to feel for these characters as they struggle to deal with loss and moving on, especially as you sit so close to the drama. With such a cozy space, the experience is much more vivid and palpable.
The Language of Trees 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. The performances are overall great, especially Gio Perez as the precocious Eben. Physically, the clever set design uses the small space well. 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 a mere $20 per ticket.
The show is not without problems though: mainly some emotional holes in the plot ("shouldn't she be sadder?") and age discrepencies (Gio Perez looks more 17 than 7...you're warned 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 20's. Their fresh take on theatre is energizing...they should be commended on a wonderful job with this show. The Language of Trees is provocative and engaging; it's for those who like their enterainment 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 and Miriam Steinberg Center for the Arts, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. Show times are Tuesday through Sunday at 7pm and Saturday and Sunday at 1:30pm. The show runs 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. Visit roundaboutunderground.org for more info and to buy tickets.)