The Roundabout Underground's debut production last year, the acclaimed, repeatedly extended hit Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate
, gave this exciting new Off-Broadway program a tough act to follow. But against the odds, it looks like the Roundabout folks may have done it again: Steven Levenson's The Language of Trees
is another searching, intimate and blazingly relevant play by a playwright barely past legal drinking age.
It turns out that these two plays are closer than is immediately apparent, despite their different subject matter: Karam's dealt with high school nerd subcultures, teen sexuality and the social impact of the Internet, while Levenson's looks at the left-behind family of an American contractor serving in Iraq. But both Karam and Levenson are fairly recent grads of Brown University's playwriting program, where Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive
, The Mineola Twins
) has mentored generations of dramatists, and Levenson himself even appeared in a Brown/Trinity Playwrights Rep production of Speech & Debate
"I didn't get cast in the New York production [of Speech & Debate
], but Robyn Goodman got a hold of my script as a result," recalls Levenson of his fortuitous connection with Karam's play, which was the first selected by Goodman, the Roundabout Artistic Consultant who heads up the company's Underground initiative. "It all came together in a very weirdly circuitous way."
Levenson began writing The Language of Trees
in 2005, at about the time, he recalls, when "things in Iraq seemed to be spiralling more and more out of control, and there was this phenomenon of non-soldiers, contractors, getting captured and beheaded. So I started to think up the story of this translator's family—this little boy, his mother and this strange neighbor."
As the "totally fictional" play began to take shape, it "started to become more and more about how language was working," Levenson says, and that was a reflection of the historical moment, too. "It seemed to be a weird time, when words we were hearing on the news didn't make sense—'progress' in Iraq seemed to mean so many different things. And in play, it comes out in the way the characters talk past each other, over one another. It's about the way we misunderstand each other, and the small and cosmic things that misunderstanding can create."
But while the play buzzes along with realistic exchanges between Eben, a precocious seven-year-old (played by Gio Perez, a young-looking actor in his early 20s), his depressive mother, Loretta (Natalie Gold), and an eerily cheery, slightly nosy neighbor, Kay (Maggie Burke), it eventually takes a turn into magical realism with scenes of the translator, Denton (Michael Hayden), in captivity in Iraq. Levenson attributes this blend of the real and the imaginary to the encouragement of Brown's Vogel, who also nurtured the careers of young playwrights Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House
, Dead Man's Cell Phone
) and Jordan Harrison (Doris to Darlene
"Part of the play's journey is that it starts with kitchen-sink realism, literally, and is then slowly contaminated by this magic sense," Levenson says. So the playful promise by Eben's dad Denton, a translator of Arabic and Farsi, that one day he'll translate the language of the trees, as well, becomes, in the father's absence, an important mission for the curious seven-year-old. Meanwhile, his imprisoned father is hallucinating conversations with Bill Clinton.
"Paula Vogel did encourage us to experiment freely with the limits of what you can do onstage, and to push those limits in ways that are organic to the story," says Levenson, who is getting his first full production anywhere outside college with The Language of Trees
. "So those moments of magic are a way of getting at a truth that's more imagistic or metaphorical, and to get past the ordinariness of language and words."
The everyday side of the play includes a number of funny, bittersweetly blunt exchanges between Eben, who's mildly obsessed with environmental concerns, and both his mother and his busybody neighbor.
"It's sort of like having a drunk character onstage—a drunk character is allowed to tell the truth," Levenson explains. "The same thing is true of children." Eben's ecological awareness is also endearing, and a little overbearing: He matter-of-factly tells a neighbor who leaves the water running that he thinks that crime merits life in prison. "There's a self-righteousness about children that's very winning and also can be sort of annoying. I was walking with my four-year-old cousin, and we walked by this man who was smoking, and she just stopped and told him, 'You're going to die.' "
From the mouths of babes, or at least the very young--this could almost be the Roundabout Underground's tagline.
Click here for more information about The Language of Trees, which begins previews at the Roundabout Underground on Oct. 4 and opens Oct. 29.