BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
An article I wrote at last year’s end examined the “balkanization” of Armenian theater – that is, its tendency to serve fragmented segments of the community, comprised of Armenians from Armenia and from Iran (who speak dialects of Eastern Armenian), and Armenians from countries of the Middle East (who speak Western Armenian dialects). I specifically mentioned Vahik Pirhamzei among the few theater artists resisting balkanization through their engagement with hybridity. Pirhamzei’s previous play, “Honest Liars” (Azniv Sdakhosner), had featured as characters Armenians both from Iran (from whence the playwright/director hails) and from Armenia.
In his latest play, “Experienced Liars” (Portsarou Sdakhosner), Pirhamzei explores the multiplicity of Armenian identity further, as he adds a speaker of Western Armenian to his repertoire of barsgahai and hayasdantsi characters. His quintessentially diasporan script employs three dialects of Armenian, along with doses of English, Farsi, Russian, Arabic, and even Italian; the stage is a veritable Babel.
“Experienced Liars,” a farce, is a sort of sequel to “Honest Liars,” with returning characters Armen and Angele again caught in the shenanigans of their friends and neighbors. Angele’s friend Hermine has left her husband, Garo, thinking that he is being unfaithful to her. Little does she know that he has been spending his time renovating a foreclosed property and flipping it for a profit. Garo’s problem is that his business partner has absconded with the money – that, and the fact that he has such poor judgment, he is willing to endanger his marriage to keep his surprise a secret.
Facing the wrath of money lenders, Garo tells them that Armen is his partner, landing them both in a heap of trouble. That’s hardly the only mess Armen is in, though. He’s being hounded by Harout, the jealous fiancé of his secretary, Maral, because the bat-wielding young man believes Armen has been carrying on with her. Angele is suspicious, too, except that she is otherwise distracted by her loony aunt who has come to live with her and Armen.
These disparate situations are forced into a plot that is convoluted and haphazard, yet frequently funny. Pirhamzei’s sense of comedy is innate, and the production’s best moments belong to him. Particularly inspired are instances of slapstick, as when Armen performs ridiculous martial arts moves in an effort to intimidate Harout or emulates stereotypical “rabiz” mannerisms, although the latter shtick is already familiar to audiences of “Honest Liars.”
Despite such highlights, however, “Experienced Liars” cannot deliver the densely-packed laughs that its predecessor did. Sequel fatigue is apparent, and Pirhamzei’s script begs for judicious cuts. Given its late start and lengthy intermission, the play turns into a three-hour experience that verges on tiresome, especially at the wretched Beyond the Stars Palace, where the confined seating makes flying economy class seem luxurious.
A merry cast of eight includes Rafael Danielian and Lusine Sargsyan, who lend fine support as Garo and Hermine, and Narek Chaplanyan, who steals scenes as Harout (particularly when his character is drunk). However, the ample talents of Anahid Avanesian are underused, Shake Toukhmanian’s portrayal of the aunt is far too grounded to seem zany, and Na rne Avakian lends Maral little nuance beyond neuroticism.
Compared to the low-grade farces that try to pass for Armenian comedy these days, “Experienced Liars” is still quite the achievement. It only falls short of the high bar that Pirhamzei has set with his earlier work. That’s why I’m hoping he will not be looking to turn “Liars” into a franchise, and will regain, with his next outing, the vibrant originality with which he makes piercing fun of Armenian follies.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Happy Armenians.”