“Nine Armenians,” by actor/playwright Leslie Ayvazian, may be one of the most frequently read scripts in the American theater. Over the past two years, it has received no fewer than 14 public readings or workshops at various institutions. Now the play has finally been put on its legs by director Christopher Ashley at Intiman. And, perhaps due to its many prior outings, it has proved itself in fighting trim. It’s a lean, 90-minute comedy-drama about an Armenian-American family, filled with knock-out punchlines. And yet, coming as it does on the heels of Intiman’s acclaimed production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” one can’t help feeling that “Nine Armenians” is a bit of a lightweight.
If there is such a genre as American ethnic comedy, “Nine Armenians” is firmly planted in it. Its cast of character includes three generations of loud-mouthed, wildly gesticulating family members. Much of its humor comes from old-world grandparents mangling American figures of speech, or new-world teens chirping “Cool!” and “Duh!” And there is an ongoing obsession with food. At every occasion, happy or sad, someone is pressing Armenian delicacies on someone else, bellowing, “Come eat!”
At the center of the story is Ani (Julie Dretzin), a young woman raised in America who decides to return to her parents’ homeland, Armenia, to “witness” the hardships of life there. She learns, however, that she can’t find her roots by traveling halfway around the world, that she has to discover them in her own parents (Charlotte Colavin and Sherman Howard) and grandmother (Barbara Andres). And her elders learn that Armenia is not only their past, but a part of their future.
Along the way, the audience is tutored in the basics of 20th-century Armenian history. During World War I, the Ottoman Turks systematically killed more than a million Armenians; another million fled to the West, many to the U.S. After the war, Armenia was subsumed by the Soviet Union, forfeiting its independence until 1991. Today, the country is a fledgling democracy, beset by terrible poverty, a lack of food and electricity and the ongoing territorial claims of its neighbors.
Still, the play’s most affecting moments have less to do with Armenia or Armenians than with the everyday pains and joys that all people experience. An old man dies, and his family grieves. Siblings meet and fight. A family is reunited, and they laugh, dance and — of course — eat.
The baklava that appears in almost every other scene in “Nine Armenians” provides a good metaphor for the play as a whole: light, a little flaky, sweet and a little bitter. The play should do well on the regional theater circuit. Producers will note that its set (designed by Loy Arcenas) is modest — just the facade of a suburban bungalow, a simple gravestone denoting a graveyard and a chair and lacy screen denoting Ani’s rude lodgings in Armenia. Marketers will find its upbeat, life-affirming tone easy to sell to subscribers. And directors and actors will gravitate toward its nine terrific ensemble roles, especially the five for women of all ages.
A 10th role, that of onstage musician, was filled here by world-renowned oud player George Mgrdichian. He filled the scene changes with everything from traditional Armenian melodies to an ethnic rendition of the jazz tune “Take Five.” He adds an authentic note of Armenian flavor, and it’s hard to imagine the play going anywhere without him.