By Leslie Ayvazian
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Manhattan Theatre Club / 131 West 55th Street / (212) 581-1212

Reviewed by David Spencer

In nearly 25 years of being a theatre critic, I have only twice forgotten to attend plays I'd been booked to see. The occurrences were more than a decade apart, in both cases I was hideously embarrassed, called up the press reps, delivered a mournful mea culpa, and was graciously allowed to reschedule, with the added assurance that, "It happens all the time."

Yeah, well, not to me it doesn't.

I resolved never to let it happen again, no matter how hectic my schedule.

The night I was slotted to see "Nine Armenians" it happened again. (This will arrive at a relevant point in a moment--hang in.)

I was critic-ing at my trusty 'puter, dusk had given way to dark, and in a brief moment of repose it occurred to me that I hadn't checked my calendar for the day. No real reason why I should, it was Sunday, a day I usually keep clear for nothing but Aisle Say, but it's a morning ritual, booting this 8K desktop utility that contains the appointments of my life, and I idly moved the cursor to the Apple menu, launched "Calendar" which opened to November 17, and there it was.

"Nine Armenians". 7:00PM. Manhattan Theatre Club.

I live in Queens.

The time was 6:35.


I nearly blew it off, nearly resolved to heave a sigh, resign myself to fate and hope to reschedule, but guilt and pride conspired to make me turn off the toys, throw on my coat, grab my wallet and keys and race downstairs, even as I was having these errant thoughts.

By the sheerest, crazy coincidence, a guy was getting out of a cab in front of my building, right as I hit the front door. I live on a side street, so the unlikelihood of this occurrence was further underscored by the disembarking passenger smiling at me as I blasted past him, and saying, "Boy, are you lucky," whereupon I said, "Bub, you have no idea," and I slammed the door behind me and told the driver to go, dreading the expense.

The driver was a hot dog, at least, and I was only 30 seconds late.

Here's the point.

Now that I've seen "Nine Armenians" I can tell you retroactively: I wouldn't have wanted to skip that cab ride for the world.

The new play by Leslie Ayvazian is one of those bright little gems--sometimes the movie folks call 'em sleepers--that rewards a critic for his trouble, and, speaking as a musical dramatist, makes an artist remember why he entered this loony business in the first place. If there's a play this season that's worth, as the doctors say, "heroic effort" to see--this from a person who made just such an effort--it's waiting for you at MTC's Mainstage.

The play is about an Armenian-American family, several generations worth, with only the children being native-born Americans. They live in an unidentified suburb, and they are a variegated, often rowdy bunch. From the oldest generation to the youngest, they are: The grandfather, Vartan (Ed Setrakian), a former preacher in his native Armenia, whose big heart tends to make his goodbyes longer than most people's hellos. His wife, the grandmother, Marie (Kathleen Chalfant) who watches lovingly over the brood with wisdom and paradoxically revealing restraint. Her younger daughter Armine (Linda Emond) who is not yet so secure in her wisdom, and whose restraint is often shyness--which makes her contrast perfectly with her husband, John (Michael Countryman). Though secretly a tender and loving man, he is not one to show that tenderness easily, or even gracefully. What he shows is exasperation, and if a moment comes that requires him to soften his demeanor, he'll do everything possible to misdirect attention from that need, until he has no choice but to fold. He folds rarely...but he never fails the family in matters of survival.

Armine's older sister, aunt to her children, is Louise (Sophie Hayden), big with the hair, big with the hugs, bedecked with rings and a big fur coat. Louise's husband is Garo (Richard Council), a bear of a man, expansive of gesture and spirit, yet a lamb in the face of his wife's extroversion.

Then there are the kids--the only ones in the play who speak in non-accented English. The youngest is Raffi (Cameron Boyd) who is not so hip as he thinks, but hip enough to teach older sister Ginya (Ellen Muth) to roller blade. Both of whom look up to Ani, at college age the eldest (Sevanne Martin).

If the story belongs to anyone, it is Ani. For it is after the death of her grandfather--offstage, at the end of the play's first scene--that she begins to think more and more about the things she doesn't know about him, about the things that brought him and Non (grandma) to America, about the Armenian way of life. And she resolves to go there, to live there for a while. To see, and learn. Ani has "roughed it" before: she's spent a few nights in jail as a political activist (though as Dad is quick to point out, she was arrested along with a group of nuns, and her incarceration wasn't exactly "hard time")--but this is different, as her family tells her. But she is determined.

This trip to the homeland instigates subtle changes in the family, as they all begin looking more closely at their heritage and the ties that bind them. And it brings them closer still.

The remarkable thing about this play--it's boilerplate dramatic theory, but remarkable when a dramatist actually pulls it off--is that the more specifically Armenian its flavors and locutions, the more universal the family appears to be. Personally, I spent much of the play thinking about my grandmother, so like the playwright's Non in many ways--although a Jew from Russia.

Remarkable too is that although the "Nine Armenians" brood is certainly a family with peccadilloes and michegoss, they are ultimately a functional family. Yet, Ms. Ayvazian proves that even people who love each other well have a compelling story to tell. Those who come from less fortunate families will warm to the characters as role models. Those from healthier families will almost certainly be awash with reminiscence.

That the play has the power to amuse and to touch is understood. What's simply stunning is how economically it does both. My favorite scene: big, Uncle Garo, sitting on the stage floor (representing the street in front of his house), staring out into space. A boisterous man, full of life, suddenly and without warning quiet, abstracted. Aunt Louise asks him what's wrong. He doesn't really know. It's just that sometimes...sometimes he doesn't know who he is anymore.

"You are Garo," she says, matter-of-factly. "Garo on the curb."

He takes this in for a brief beat. "That's me," he agrees, simply.

Gently, she tells him to come back in the house for dinner. He will, he promises. He will. And so saying...continues to sit...and stare...

A scene as powerful for what it doesn't say as for what it says. And a scene that never explains itself. What comes before and what comes after puts it into a broader narrative and emotional context--but the simple eloquence of that alone...well, it's the kind of theatrical image that can stay with you for life.

Every performance in the play, under Lynne Meadow's poetic direction, is one to love--truly, and I'm not being hyperbolic, it's like being clasped into the bosom of an adoptive family. They get close to you quickly. Even the more familiar performers--Ms. Chalfant, Ms. Hayden, Mr. Countryman--hit a stride here that is new for them; the synthesis of role and actor is flawlessly convincing.

If there's a performance worth touting among the equals around it, it may be that of Sevanne Martin as Ani. She's an amazing young actress who, if she makes wise choices and is guided by wise professional management, is probably a star on the come. She has that thing about her, the presence, the poise, the distinctive beauty--and the fearlessness.

Add to this an evocative, slightly impressionistic set by Santo Loquasto, the live mandolin underscoring provided by George Mgrdichian and the feeling that the play's 100 or so intermissionless minutes zip by way too quickly...and the finest Armenian-American recipe is complete.

You'll want to plan your trip to "Nine Armenians" more carefully than I planned mine, though. You'll want to be there with somebody--maybe even with a whole family--you love...

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