BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Three years ago, an evening of dramatic readings at the Kirk Douglas Theatre to commemorate the Armenian Genocide centennial showcased a lengthy scene from Leslie Ayvazian’s play “15/15.” It depicted a confrontation between a hospitalized Armenian man and the figure of a Turk he imagines seeing in his room.
Directed by Michael Arabian and featuring Ken Davitian, Hrach Titizian, and Ayvazian herself, the scene was nothing short of gripping. In reviewing it at the time, I called it a “knockout piece” – a “superbly performed” bit of writing commendable for “its verbal dexterity, its unconventional pacing . . . and its deft use of humor.” I went on to add that “15/15” deserved “a full production,” with Arabian mounting “a memorable staging of Ayvazian’s promising script.”
That full-length script, retitled “100 Aprils,” is now being presented by Rogue Machine – one of L.A.’s small but formidable theater companies – in a world premiere production that opened on June 9 and runs through July 16. Arabian is back at the helm as director and Ayvazian again does double-duty as a member of the cast, but little remains of the pulsating tension that defined the earlier, partial staging. The production has many potent moments, to be sure, but the writing, the performances, and Arabian’s direction all lack sufficient punch.
Ayvazian is best known for “Nine Armenians,” a genial play devoid of the absurdist style that permeates some of her other work. “100 Aprils” has tinges of absurdism, with strong accents of dark humor.
The play unfolds in a psychiatric ward, where Dr. John Seypian is a patient. John, a Demerol addict who prescribes himself the drug and injects himself with it, has suffered an overdose and is now restrained to his bed. His visitors in the hospital include his wife Beatrice, his daughter Arlene, and a man named Ahmet, who is referred to as “the Turk.”
John’s addiction has ravaged his body, both physically and psychologically. The physical distress is manifested in the form of congestive heart failure; the psychological, in the form of hallucinations. Ahmet is a figment of John’s imagination – actually, a distorted version of the Turkish doctor assigned to his care.
The clash between the Armenian characters and Ahmet – in both his real and imaginary incarnations – fuels the proceedings. John and Beatrice, the offspring of Genocide survivors haunted by images and memories of their parents’ experiences, unspool their wrath upon Ahmet in an effort to have him admit the atrocities perpetrated by his ancestors. In a dream sequence, Beatrice grabs “the Turk” by his hair and holds a letter opener to his throat, ready to puncture. In a later, “real” sequence – one that resonates as more shrill than impactful – Beatrice and Arlene literally tackle Ahmet (the doctor) to the ground.
Ahmet, however, is not easily intimidated. He not only articulates a denialist narrative (thus compounding the trauma of the Genocide itself), he accuses the Armenians of weaponizing their painful past. “You bully us with your sorrows,” he snarls.
Giving voice to “the Turk” is virtually unprecedented in Armenian theater – indeed, in all of Armenian literature. As the late literary critic Vahe Oshagan has observed, “nowhere in Armenian literature is this Turk present.” I am unaware of any Armenian playwright, other than William Saroyan, who has conceived and meaningfully engaged a Turkish character on stage. Saroyan did so four decades ago in a work titled “Ouzenk Chouzenk Hai Yenk” (Like It or Not, We’re Armenians), which has never been published or performed.
John and Beatrice hurl insults and invectives at Ahmet, but underlying their anger is a desperation to have him acknowledge a past crime of epic proportion. This desperation is discordant with contemporary Armenian discourse about the Genocide, which has attained vast global recognition over the past 30 years, but is fitting for the year in which the play is set – 1982. That time marker, however, makes the title of the piece (an obvious reference to the Genocide centennial) somewhat confusing, since the play’s action post-dates the Genocide by only 67 Aprils.
Clocking in at a mere 70 minutes, Ayvazian’s script should be a juggernaut – a coiled spring of potential energy ready to explode. Instead, it too often indulges tepid subplots (much ado about Arlene being stung by a bee) and a tedious number of contrived entrances and exits in and out of John’s room. Ayvazian effectively portrays Beatrice with an East Coast neuroticism that runs the gamut from funny to furious, but John Perrin Flynn (Rogue Machine’s Artistic Director) frequently slips into monotone in his portrayal of her dying husband; he is droll and ornery, but not seething in a believably feverish way. Robertson Dean is coolly sardonic as “the Turk,” but lacks menace, and his take on Dr. Ahmet is hampered by the script’s limitations.
It’s gratifying to see “100 Aprils” as a complete work, since it delivers a bold and unique way to dramatize the Genocide; but the crisp, taut teaser from 2015 intimates how much more the production could have been and lends its own sense of loss to the story.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His next production, “William Saroyan’s Theater of Diaspora: The Unpublished Plays in Performance,” is slated to have its world premiere this fall.