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|A CurtainUp Review
The major problem of a new and still understaffed magazine like this is that you simply can't cover all the theatrical goodies New York has to offer. Nine Armenians is a case in point. Yet, having examined two other plays, (both gone to our File Cabinet), about hyphenated Americans who are drawn to their past ( 12/12/96: Insurrection: Holding History ) and 11/20/96: Golden Child ), we didn't want this first new play by an Armenian-American playwright to close before we had a chance to review it. And so, with less than two weeks left to see the Manhattan Theatre Club's production, at City Center, here's our down-to-the-wire review.
To cut to the chase. See it if you can. For one thing, Lesley Ayvazian is the first playwright since William Saroyan, who has examined the lives of the one million Armenians, (out of six million all over the world). Like many Americans, she grew up knowing little about her family's culture and traditions and only became enmeshed in it since moving from Boston to New Jersey where she lives in a house filled with family mementos which served as an emotional link to her past and, not surprisingly, a creative wellspring for her play about one Armenian family who symbolize the the universal story of people coming to this country to escape the upheavals going on in their native lands.
The family in Nine Armenians, like so many immigrant families, contains three viewpoints. First there are the grandparents who can't and don't want to forget their past. In the middle are their children who remember but want to forget and spare their children the knowledge of their ancestors' terrors. And finally, there are the children who grow up accent-free and memory free though eventually, at least one of them experiences a need to connect with the past in order to make more sense of the future. That one person in Nine Armenians is, Ani, (Sevanne Martin), the oldest of three suburban-raised siblings
What's most refreshing about Ani and her family is that, while they may have their quirks, neither are they one of those darkly dysfunctional families. They're basically sound, substantial, loving people. The father, (Michael Countryman), a doctor, has some problems expressing his feelings, but he's an emotional rock of Gibraltar when you need him. Ani's mother, (Linda Emond), while never able to act on her feelings the way her daughter does, nevertheless encourages her to go to Armenia "to bear witness" and in so doing gains the strength towards her own moment of courage and action. In short, Ani is not a rebel apart from a family that opposes her views and actions, but simply a catalyst to bring them closer than ever together--and in the process, closer to letting go of the darker aspect of their history by embracing it.
If all this sounds heavy, it isn't. The sixteen short scenes are filled with the humor that is typical of so many multi-cultural homes, much of it revolving around food, something anyone who's had a Jewish Buba or a Greek or Rumanian or Chinese one can identify with. (Save your program. It includes a tasty-sounding, easy recipe for Tass Kebob with Pilaf!).
Most importantly, the actors portraying this fictional family are all excellent. Kathleen Chalfant whose career we've followed with utmost admiration adds another jewel to her crown. She is at once regal and funny as Non, the grandmother, and if she looks a tad too young for the part who cares. Sophie Hayden is simply wonderful as the comic and sad Aunt Louise and Michael Countryman is just right as the often exacerbated but always loving dad. Richard Council is fine as Uncle Garo though his character while moving is the one that is the least clear. Sevanne Martin who makes her Broadway debut as Ani, more than lives up to the standards set by the more experienced members of the cast. We look forward to following her career, as we have her fictional grandmother's.
In closing, a word about Santo Loquasto's minimal set with it's numerous surprises by virtue of sliding panels and the ninth Armenian, oudist George Mgrdichian. Both set and music serve the play's movement and dramatic cohesiveness well.