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Theater Review (NYC): The Language of Trees by Steven Levenson

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To see, or not to see? That is the question, and this reviewer is unsure. The Roundabout Theater Company's production of Steven Levenson's off-Broadway debut has some great moments and attempts much in this short and intimate production, but does it live up to its potential? 

The Language of Trees follows Loretta and her young son Eben at home after Loretta's husband Denton is shipped off to Iraq as a translator. In focusing on the mother and son, we glimpse a prosaic world of dishes and housecleaning and one pesky neighbor who befriends and bothers them. Overseas, Denton gets more than he bargained for 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. Denton converses with Bill Clinton in his cell, providing some of the most enjoyable and also sorrowful moments of the play. Denton monologues about his love for his family without realizing Clinton is a figment of his imagination. This clever scene is matched by one in which Eben speaks to his father through a tree, and one in which which Loretta visits Denton in his cell to kiss him goodbye. This latter scene has more emotional realism than all the dull cleaning scenes combined.

The Roundabout keeps a small black-box theater for the development of young playwrights like Levenson. It's always a pleasure to see a new playwright emerge, but Levenson's writing seems naïve as it focuses on Loretta and Eben at home while Denton fights in Iraq. Charles Isherwood noted in the New York Times that the play was the first to focus on the home front rather than the war zone.

As that review also noted, the plight of the father in Iraq makes the life of the mother and son seem trivial. As they talk about school or pizza, the characters don't properly convey the depth and subtlety of talking around things, nor do they suffer breakdowns to offer the audience a more visceral glimpse into their personal agonies. This could be due to Ms. Gold's thin performance as well as the script itself. The structure of the play is flawed, containing extraneous scenes and dwelling too much on the dishes, functioning only to retard the development of 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. It felt, however, to be more moving because of the real-life parallels than the specific human drama of the setting. I was reminded of people I know in the military, and of scenes in the news. But in the characters Loretta and Eben I only find suggestions of what such people could be like.

You can safely skip this play, but watch out for Levenson in the future. There is a candor and ambition in his work that may 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). Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company at the Roundabout’s Black Box Theater in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street, Manhattan. Through December 14.

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