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‘Nine Armenians,’ a Play by Leslie Ayvazian, Opens Off-Broadway

November 12, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ Sometimes you can go home again _ but be prepared for an argument.

Playwright Leslie Ayvazian did _ and was. Out of her journey has come ``Nine Armenians,″ a heartfelt remembrance of her Armenian-American family. They are the most appealing bunch of squabblers you are likely to encounter on stage this season.

``We’re yellers,″ explains one of the more vocal members of the clan, analyzing the Armenian personality in between emotional outbursts that seem to occur and then evaporate with the frequency of a summer rain.

Ayvazian’s play, which opened Tuesday at off-Broadway’s Manhattan Theater Club, takes the form of brief theatrical snapshots. It is a 90-minute album of memories that coalesce into telling portraits of three generations shaped by the people and place they came from.

Hovering over the play is the Turkish extermination of 1 million Armenians in 1915. Although little known outside the Armenian community, the massacre was a cataclysmic event that transformed the lives of the generations who followed.

Ayvazian’s family was no exception. In her play, she focuses on Ani, the firebrand daughter of an Armenian-American doctor. Ani is determined to travel to present-day Armenia to see the country for herself. In the role, Sevanne Martin carefully avoids stridency. Ayvazian helps by giving the character several emotionally stirring moments, particularly a tender scene with her grandmother in which understanding reaches across generations.

Ani’s overseas trip divides her parents, upsetting her father, John, but eventually inspiring her mother, Armine, a quiet woman reined in by all the vocal turbulence around her.

The evening gets off to a loud _ and uproarious start _ as the family tries to say goodbye after a big Sunday meal. Farewells have never been as funny _ or lasted so long.

What makes Ayvazian’s play so enjoyable are the distinctive _ and distinctive-looking _ characters she creates. Michael Countryman gives John an exasperated charm, while Linda Emond as his wife is a sweetly subservient woman who eventually finds finds her own voice.

Among the people introduced during this opening bit of comic business are Ani’s grandparents, Pop and Non, played by Ed Setrakian and the graceful, commanding Kathleen Chalfant.

Also present is Uncle Garo, a big gentle man, played by the wonderfully square-jawed Richard Council. Garo, a jeweler, is under the thumb of his high-strung wife, Louise, a lady who wears her emotions on her sleeve. Sophie Hayden brings that endearing volatility to nerve-racking life.

Then there are Ginya (Ellen Muth) and Raffi (Cameron Boyd), two more members of the youngest generation. They are more American than Armenian, yet they nonetheless carry the traits of their ancestors.

Ayvazian’s play celebrates those links, reveling in the idiosyncrasies of the Armenian culture that bind these people together. For the playwright, the biggest sin is denial of that heritage.

Despite the short, choppy scenes, director Lynne Meadow doesn’t let the production flag. Designer Santo Loquasto’s fluid setting consists of two sliding panels, gracefully decorated with the outline of Mount Ararat. The mountain is the geographic soul of Armenia and the place where Noah’s Ark reportedly found dry land.

These panels occasionally move to reveal a graveyard and the back end of an automobile with New Jersey license plates. It’s the getaway vehicle from all those suffocating Sunday dinners that go on and on and on. Just like real life, no matter what the nationality.

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