Little Funny About ‘Money’

Arpi Samuelian, Arpi Balabanian, and Peter Nishan in "Funny Money"
Arpi Samuelian, Arpi Balabanian, and Peter Nishan in "Funny Money"

Arpi Samuelian, Arpi Balabanian, and Peter Nishan in “Funny Money”

Review by Aram Kouyoumdjian

LOS ANGELES — AGBU’s Satamian Theatre Group – the only troupe in Los Angeles that regularly produces Armenian-language plays – puzzlingly sat out 2015, without marking the Genocide Centennial in any way. The year-long sabbatical apparently left the ensemble itching to return to the farces and (mostly) lowbrow comedies that have defined the overwhelming bulk of its repertoire.

The company has now kicked off the new year with “Tramuh Incher Guneh” (literally, The Things Money Does), an adaptation of Ray Cooney’s “Funny Money,” which opened on January 9 for a seven-performance run through January 31. “Funny Money” marks the third Cooney play that director Krikor Satamian has helmed, which makes three too many in my book.

Manoug Satamian’s elegant set for the production would suggest that “Funny Money” is a sophisticated parlor comedy, which it sadly and decidedly is not. Rather, it is the far-fetched story of a man named Hagop Papazian who mistakenly switches bags with a stranger, only to find a stash of cash in it to the tune of $4 million. Intent on absconding with the loot (likely from a criminal enterprise) before its owner comes looking for it, he insists to his wife that they must flee to Barcelona that very night.

In order for cacophonous chaos to ensue, however, for doors to be slammed shut, for identities to be confused, and for bags to be further switched, a number of improbable situations must be devised, involving motley characters like the Papazians’ close friends, a pair of detectives, and a taxi driver. The story turns preposterous in short order, thanks to bribery schemes, vehicular accidents, and a cat subplot that materializes far too late in the proceedings to be even mildly entertaining.

To be sure, there are occasional laughs during the 90-minute show (performed without an intermission), and at least a couple of actors avoid the shriek-fest in which the cast frequently engages.  The ever-reliable Aram Muradian (who, in the interest of full disclosure, was the lead in my adaptation of “Ancient Gods” a couple of years back) is in fine form as the taxi driver, and Peter Nishan makes a welcome addition to the ensemble, exhibiting an engaging and natural ease in a role that could have easily become flamboyantly cliché.

Otherwise, the energy of the piece seems forced, with several cast members, including veterans Roupen Harmandayan and Ari Libaridian, trying too hard to wring comedy out of tepid lines.  (Libaridian overly relies on facial and body tics as substitutes for character development.) It doesn’t help that the script suffers a number of gratingly awkward lines – literal translations from the English original that do not ring authentic in Armenian.

Forgotten lines caused a few hiccups at the Sunday night performance I saw on January 10 as well. While those can be expected to dissipate as the production settles into the run, deeper problems with the writing, the staging, and the production’s overall tone will almost certainly continue to prove bothersome to discerning audiences.

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest play, “Happy Armenians,” had its world premiere in Los Angeles this past October and will be revived in Northern California in February.

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