Theater Review: ‘Heroes,’ ‘Groom’ Join Cavalcade of Comedy

From l. to r.: Anahid Avanesian, Helen Kalognomos, Paola Kassabian, and Vahik Pirhamzei in 'Unusual Heroes'


BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

Since only a handful of Armenian plays grace Southland stages in any given year, the concentration of four – four! – plays in a single month must have required a rare alignment of the planets. The cavalcade of comedy began early in May with “Shoghokort” (The Flatterer), which is continuing its multi-weekend run. “Unusual Heroes” premiered mid-month and is slated for a repeat staging in June, while “Where Is Your Groom?” (Pesad Oor Eh?), a visiting production from the East Coast, played only a single performance. “Rafael Qerou 2 Kantseruh” (The 2 Treasures of Uncle Rafael) begins at month’s end.

Whatever glee such quantity induced, however, has been tempered – so far anyway – by the lackluster quality of the offerings themselves. “Heroes,” the latest comedy from Vahik Pirhamzei (though his first in English) was hindered by a muddled and middling script, and “Groom” was a collaboration between theater novices, which proved all too apparent in every aspect of the production. (I’ve already written about the shortcomings of “Shoghokort.”)

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“Heroes” was a half hour late in starting, which meant that the audience at Beyond the Stars “Palace” – a grotesque misnomer – suffered through 30 minutes of ads, projected on oversized screens, for criminal law attorneys and cellulite treatments.

The play itself unfolded at a beauty salon full of “Steel Magnolias”-style drama: proprietor Scarlett is on the verge of losing her business due to her husband’s gambling problems; her wealthy client, Luiza, has spousal issues of her own, thanks to a philandering mate; and her receptionist, Lily, is dating a chiropractor 18 years her senior. Joining them is Paula, a law school graduate hiding from her father and her fiancé the fact that she did not pass the Bar exam (never mind that results are posted online).

What begins as an ordinary day is interrupted by breaking news about an Armenian fugitive named Heros, who may have hurt a pregnant woman, leaving her hospitalized. Heros seeks refuge at the salon, ostensibly setting up a hostage situation. Except that Heros is about as threatening as a dove, calling into question whether he hurt the pregnant lady at all.

Pirhamzei’s script had the structure of comedy but lacked its zing. There was a clever exchange about the multiple languages and dialects of Armenian spoken by the characters, and Pirhamzei pulled off some funny moves during a dance sequence. Far more prevalent, however, were tired jokes about chiropractors, mothers-in-law, and Glendale; mere mention of that city seems to serve as a punchline these days.

Further confusing the play’s tone was Pirhamzei’s insistence on exploring – in a serious way – psychological and social issues, including infidelity and domestic violence. Heros, we were told, has Asperger’s, although as played by Pirhamzei, he came across as developmentally challenged instead. A faux ending to the play verged on the tragic – scored to melodramatic music, no less – only to reverse course and reveal a happy twist.

Writer/director Taleen Babayan (left) plays Lara and Katherine Sabbagh is her mother, Siroun, in 'Where Is Your Groom?'

Incorporating video vignettes for the news segments was a peculiar choice, as it essentially stopped the action on stage so that the characters could watch television! Still, these segments were well-cast and frequently entertaining.

The live cast was strong as well, as it tends to be in all Pirhamzei projects. Anahid Avanesian’s take on Scarlett was overly fussy and a tad superficial, but Helen Kalognomos and Paola Kassabian exhibited strong stage presence, and Narine Avakian’s turn as Lily managed to be both buoyant and deep.

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Over in South Pasadena High School’s cavernous auditorium, “Where Is Your Groom?” had its start 25 minutes late.

If I were writing a feature story about the play, I’d expound on the initiative shown by playwright/director Taleen Babayan and her merry cast of non-actors in not only crafting a work of theater and performing it on the East Coast, but then bringing it out west. These young Armenians – seemingly in their 20s and 30s – were eager to express, through artistic means, the challenges of maintaining identity in a diaspora. Due to their lack of training and experience in theater, however, the resulting piece never transcended the level of beginners’ work.

“Groom” revolved mostly around the rather odd Keshishian family. Siroun, the mother, is a fan of Adis (the singer who gifted “Karoun Karoun” to the world), though she’s primarily occupied with baking chorek pastries and urging everyone to eat them. Koko, the father, quotes Armenian poetry in between asking his daughter, “Where is your groom?” Saro, the son, practices law when he’s not carousing with myriad women – or his octogenarian grandmother. And Lara, the daughter, is a 28-year-old who still lives at home, while dating odars – non-Armenians – because she is disillusioned with the caliber of Armenian guys in the community.

A scene from Taleen Babayan's 'Where Is Your Groom?'

The search for an Armenian groom for Lara turns into a parade – and I don’t use that word lightly – of potential suitors, including Jiro, weighed down by his jewelry and ego. Then there’s Levon and Paul and Armen and spastic Artem, not to mention Ari, the detective summoned to investigate the disappearance of a Fabergé egg. Yes, a missing Fabergé egg is key to the storyline.

Babayan’s writing fluidly alternated between Armenian and English; however, even with the level of exaggeration that satire allows, the script’s treatment of social situations bordered on the preposterous, while the play’s characters – all sixteen of them! – were little more than caricatures. The parental generation was given particularly short shrift. Armenian parents surely cling to some Old World habits, which can be overbearing at times; indeed, the play was justified in calling them out for guilting their children into marriage. But parents of Siroun and Koko’s age (presumably in their 50s), who’ve managed to raise professional children in the United States, are as apt to be focused on their children’s education, careers, and financial well-being, as on their marital status. And they have no problems handling modern phones and sending text messages.

Virtually all the cast members – most of them nowhere near the age of the characters they were portraying – were stepping onto a stage for the first time, a reality that the caliber of the performances made evident. It did not help to have a neophyte director helming the production. Stage movement was inert, often consisting of having several characters sit in a row. Actors vacated the stage – or returned – for no discernible reason, except that they did not have lines to speak for a while. There were props on stage, including actual food, but the act of eating was mimed, and drinks were poured out of empty bottles.

Nevertheless, a great deal of self-confidence was required – both on and off stage – for this start-up troupe to pull off this production. I am hopeful that Babayan and her cohorts will devote some time to study and training prior to their next venture. That kind of investment will surely pay high artistic dividends.

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is an adaptation of “Ancient Gods.”

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3 Comments

  1. Sarmen M. said:

    Mr. Kouyoumdjian’s review of the play “Where is your Groom” is a welcome read, especially for those of us on the East Coast who attended the play (some of us more than once). However, there are a few inaccurate statements I would like to point out.

    Kouyoumdjian writes that “virtually all the cast members – most of them nowhere near the age of the characters they were portraying…” In reality, of the 16 or so cast members, 13 of them are the age they were portraying on stage, only 3 were not. This is an oversight on the reviewer’s part and something that could’ve been remedied by consulting the play booklet that was surely distributed prior to the LA play, which contained cast biographies.

    My wife and I attended the premiere performance of “Where is your Groom” in a black box theater in the Village in NY. I have spent time in the entertainment industry and what I saw was nothing short of spectacular, especially considering it was written by a first time playwright and performed by first time actors. A rather high-profile actor/director who attended the initial performance nodded her head in approval after the play. The script was full of many truths, yes some were exaggerated for effect, though no one would argue that the statements, emotions, and actions of the family members in the play happen daily in Armenian households.

    We enjoyed the play so much that we took my mother as well as our teenage daughters to the following performance in New Jersey, accompanied by their “odar” friend. Our daughters’ response to the play, along with their “odar” friend, solidified my initial feeling about the play – it is relatable to both young and old, to Armenians as well as “friends of Armenians,” and to Beirutsis, Barskahyes, Amerigahyes, Hayastanzis, Bolsahyes, and Amerigatsis. My own 71 year old mother was laughing throughout the play, I hadn’t seen her so excited about watching something in quite a while. She adored and raved about the grandmother character, and we had a great drive home discussing the play and which character or scene was our favorite. Yes there are many characters, but they all relate to someone we’ve known, or eerily, I was able to relate to one myself. Exiting the theater both times I couldn’t help but notice people huddled together discussing the play, some saying how they should have brought so and so with them.

    In many ways, the play and Babayan’s efforts, along with the cast members, serves as inspiration for my daughters and their generation. The younger generation, especially females, should be applauded for their initiative and ambition for putting something like this together. Kouyoumdjian is correct when he notes the self-confidence necessary to pull off an LA performance, to travel and move an entire cast and crew across the country without being aligned with an organization, all while donating proceeds to noteworthy causes, and for Babayan to write, direct, produce, and even act in the LA performance, a totally new venue for her and the cast and crew.

    This is my main point about the play, let’s see this for what it is: this is one for the masses, for people to go and enjoy, to laugh at the ridiculous nature and family dynamic in our community. At times in his review, Kouyoumdjian is looking at this with quite a critical and technical eye, but that’s where his review misses the mark. This is a play for the masses, the technical details he points out in the review would go over the heads of 99% of the audience, rather than use print space to talk about that, he could have written how much audience members in the theater were enjoying the play. After all, isn’t the purpose of art, and in this case theater, to feel some emotion, to forget about our own lives for a few moments, or to reflect on our own lives and connect with characters, and most importantly to laugh and share happiness and joy in a room full of hundreds of others and to then start a dialogue concerning many of the themes?

    Bravo to Babayan and the cast and crew, and to all young Armenians taking their first steps in the arts, may they all be giant leaps as they are in the case of “Where is your Groom.”

  2. MacKenzie P. said:

    My Armenian boyfriend has recently introduced me to his ethnic culture and took me to the play performance of “Where Is Your Groom?” when it had a show in New Jersey last December. Although it’s a completely different culture from my American upbringing, I really enjoyed the play and I laughed more than I thought I would. I didn’t notice the small details this reviewer did, such as how late it started or the lack of professional acting training or the fact that a faberge egg was part of the story because I was more interested in the action on the stage.

    More importantly, the play showed me something aside from an entertaining evening, which was how warm and inviting Armenian people are. I’ve been doing my best to get involved in the Armenian culture (such as reading this Armenian news website) so I was afraid of what the “community” would think of me as a non-Armenian since I knew what a close group of people Armenians are. So none of the negative things and details here that the reviewer picks on mattered to me because I saw the event as a nice way to bring Armenians together and to share the experience of viewing an Armenian-American play on stage, which this “odar” really enjoyed!

  3. Ana Lovesbooks said:

    I totally agree with the review of Mr .Kouyoumdjian, including that the play started 25 min late! I know we Armenians almost always late but still: no announcement or apology was given.
    My take on it is this: the play could have been funny and much better if it was performed by professional actors.
    OMG, I never seen “actors’ this bad as they were.
    But the think is that we, Armenians, get so happy that at last there is something Armenian is going on, that we can take our families and make ourselves to laugh at our traditional cultural things, that this all, in my opinion, make us too forgiving………otherwise me personally would have asked my money back, sorry!

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