The Language of Trees, teetering between the homefront and the warzone

To see, or not to see this new play? That is the question, and this reviewer is unsure. The Roundabout theater’s production of a young playwright’s off-Broadway debut has magical moments, but does it fulfill its potential in this short and intimate production?

The Language of Trees follows Loretta and her young son Eben at home while the husband Denton goes to Iraq as a translator and is captured. The focus on the mother and son shows us a prosaic world of dishes and cleaning and one pesky neighbor, who befriends and bothers them. As they deal with life after loss at home, Denton finds more than he bargained for as a translator when he is captured and held hostage.

These topical and all-too real issues are imbued with a degree of magic that is charming to watch. Here, Denton converses with Bill Clinton in his cell, providing some of the most enjoyable and also pathos-ridden moments of the play. Denton rambles about his love for his family until he realizes that Clinton is imaginary. The clever Clinton scene was matched by Eben speaking to his father through a tree and by an ending in which Loretta takes on Denton’s words, walk over to him in his cell and kisses him goodbye–and this scene held more emotional realism than all the dull cleaning scenes combined.

The Roundabout Theater keeps a small basement black box theater for the encouragement of young playwrights, such as The Language of Tree‘s Steven Levenson. A pleasure to see a new playwright, but Levenson certainly seemed naive as he focused on Loretta and Eben at home while Denton fights in Iraq. The New York Times noted the play was the first to focus on the home front rather than war zone.

As that article also noted, the plight of the father in Iraq makes the life of the mother and son seem relatively trivial. As they talk about school or pizza, the characters fail to display the depth of talking around things nor do they have breakdowns where one is transported into their agony. This could be due to Ms. Gold’s thin performance as well as the script. The structure of the play itself was flawed. It contained extraneous scenes, and dwelling on dishes seemed to retard meaningful relationships rather than illuminate them. The father, on the other hand, shown kneeling with a black hood over his head, can hardly fail to resonate with an American audience today.

The play tackles serious issues, and ones deeply felt by millions of Americans. I was one of the few theatergoers not crying at the end. However, it was more moving in that it reminds one of reality than because it explores human drama and loss in a specific context. It reminds you of anybody you know in the military, it reminds you of the news…but in the characters Loretta and Eben you only find suggestions of what such people could be like.

Skip this play, but watch for playwright Steven Levenson in the future. There was a candor and ambition in his work that could develop quite magically.

By Steven Levenson; directed by Alex Timbers. With: Maggie Burke (Kay Danley), Natalie Gold (Loretta Trumble-Pinkerstone), Michael Hayden (Denton Pinkerstone), Gio Perez (Eben Trumble-Pinkerstone) and Michael Warner (Bill Clinton). At the Roundabout’s Black Box Theater, at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street, Manhattan through December 14.

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