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October 30, 2008


Steven Levenson’s ‘The Language of Trees’ looks at a family fractured by the Iraq war


By Michael Kuchwara


NEW YORK (AP) – A family fractured by the Iraq war is at the center of “The Language of Trees,” the impressive second offering of Roundabout Underground, a new-play initiative that brings the work of fledgling writers to the stage.


Steven Levenson’s play, now on view at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Black Box Theatre, is ambitious in scope and crams a lot into an overstuffed 90 minutes. But Levenson juggles the various plot strands well under Alex Timbers’ thoughtful, clear-headed direction.


The play’s emotional heart is a 7-year-old boy with a mouthful of a name, Eben Trumble-Pinkerstone. He’s a precocious, opinionated lad, played by Gio Perez, an obviously older actor. But go ahead and suspend your disbelief. Perez handles the age gap just fine.


Eben’s father, Denton, has been sent to Iraq, not as a soldier but as a translator. It’s a job the man (Michael Hayden) hopes will keep him out of danger. That’s not to be, and Denton is captured and held hostage.


The play divides most – but not all – of its scenes between the domestic anxiety of Eben’s home life with the bleak captivity of the incarcerated father.


The stateside existence of Eben and his mother (Natalie Gold) is exacerbated by the presence of an older neighbor (Maggie Burke) who wants to be helpful but stirs things up. She’s a woman whose practicality especially irritates the little boy, who’s prone to fanciful imaginings.


One of the more intriguing involves the play’s title. “I want to make Dad a picture of a tree that can talk. So he can learn what language trees talk, so he can translate them,” Eben says at one point in the play.


What people say or don’t say counts for a lot in “The Language of Trees,” especially in the prickly relationship between the mother and her neighbor. Gold and Burke handle their wariness toward each other with a frosty believability that you know eventually will thaw.


But Levenson doesn’t confine his play to realistic family drama. The evening veers into fantasy in Denton’s tomblike cell when President Clinton (Michael Warner in a not particularly exact imitation of the former chief executive) makes a surprise appearance.


Guess what? Both men miss the ’90s, sentiment that seems particularly pertinent these days.


It’s one of the lighter moments in a play that gets increasingly somber as it works toward an inevitable conclusion. Even though tragedy is expected, the ending still carries a punch that makes one want to see what Levenson will write next.

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