Nine Armenians

Apple Tree Theatre

By Adam Langer

Rendering incomprehensible atrocities comprehensible frequently involves making them all too palatable, even banal. Thus a collective yawn seemed to greet the Chicago premiere of Leslie Ayvazian’s much-acclaimed Nine Armenians at Apple Tree Theatre. “Well, we’ve certainly heard this before,” one audience member remarked.

And of course we have heard it before. Plays dealing with genocide have become so common that audiences may no longer feel the slightest shock when confronted with the fact that two million Armenians were massacred by the Turkish Ottoman government. And the indifference and “stop whining about it” attitude frequently directed toward holocaust survivors’ accounts are not only the fault of a jaded or insensitive public: the dramatist and the director have a responsibility to make the audience confront these virtually unfathomable mass murders. It would be convenient to say that the yawners and agitated mumblers at Apple Tree were just a bunch of bigoted, callous boobs, but if an audience can walk out of a play about an Armenian family haunted by the early-20th-century genocide and remark that it’s all been said before, one has to wonder whether the playwright and director have done their jobs.

There can be little doubt that Ayvazian’s semiautobiographical script is earnest. But the road to sentimental kitsch is paved with such good intentions. Set in 1992 in an American suburb, presumably much like the one in New Jersey where Ayvazian grew up, her bittersweet drama introduces us to three generations of an Armenian-American family demonstrating three levels of assimilation. Vartan and Marie, the patriarch and matriarch who managed to escape the genocide and emigrate to the United States, still cling to their memories of the old country, supplying their children and grandchildren with baklava, tass kebab, and reminders that the genocide should never be forgotten. Their daughter and physician son-in-law, Armine and John, have become textbook suburban parents, grudgingly tolerating Vartan and Marie’s old-world ways. John and Armine’s two younger children, Raffi and Ginya, are thoroughly American, while their eldest daughter, Ani, has turned into a political crusader protesting nuclear tests. John’s sister Louise and her husband Garo are somewhat tangential but seem to have effectively bridged the gap between the old world and the new, living in the suburbs yet maintaining a comfortable attachment to Armenian customs. Conflicts ensue when Vartan dies and young Ani, in an act of self-discovery and self-abnegation coupled with latent survivor guilt, decides to journey to Armenia and connect with her heritage, forcing all members of the family to confront the meaning of being Armenian and the reality of surviving and even thriving in late-20th-century America.

Ayvazian excels when she focuses on what she seems to know best: the details of assimilated family life in suburban America. Family rituals–the interminable good-byes, the feigned agitation at having to endure weekly get-togethers, the trivial squabbles, the veiled but tangible expressions of affection–are expertly realized in witty, fast-paced dialogue. Ayvazian also does a fine job of mapping the complex network of relationships among the family members: we’re always fully cognizant of how each of these nine Armenians feels about the other eight. With just a few lines here and there, Ayvazian reveals the unstated but pervasive hostility between John and Louise, the resulting strained friendship between Louise and Armine, and the respect and devotion between Vartan and Marie.

But when Ayvazian attempts to tackle more emotionally and philosophically challenging issues she falters, seeking refuge in melodrama and cliche. Ani’s voyage to self-discovery in Armenia is particularly problematic. In Ayvazian’s vision Ani is a saintly, two-dimensional do-gooder. “I have to go see things so I can write things,” she tells her family before she embarks on her journey, during which she gives her one and only coat to some poor stranger while she herself is nearly freezing to death. And when she returns, braver and wiser, her showdown with her grandmother (“I needed you to teach me”) has a by-the-numbers family-confrontation feel reminiscent of a hackneyed scene in last season’s Kindertransport at Apple Tree, in which a daughter lambastes her mother for failing to tell her the details of her Jewish heritage.

“Suffering is my heritage. Silence is my heritage,” Ani declares to Marie, who then teaches her granddaughter how to wring her hands and wail when the memory of Armenian suffering becomes too difficult to bear. But for all the hand-wringing and wailing, this tragedy in Armenian history fails to register, largely because Ayvazian resorts to pat dialogue and standard dramatic conflicts and resolutions. When Armine hears the cathartic discussion between her mother and daughter and decides to venture to Armenia herself to work in an orphanage, and the family clasps hands at the end to perform a traditional Armenian dance, the audience goes home perhaps moved but content, offsetting the gravity of the history Ayvazian attempts to confront.

It’s become a convention for dramas dealing with the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, and now, the genocide in Armenia, to pay tribute to the strength of the human spirit, to use the cliche. This approach appeals to the sentimentalist in me, but I don’t know what historical purpose it serves. Works like Schindler’s List that conclude by focusing on the triumphs of the survivors may be uplifting, but they tend to exonerate the audience, and in some ways they trivialize the atrocities against millions of people, making it seem possible to overcome their memories. Quoting Hannah Arendt in her recent essay in the New Yorker about the bowdlerizations of Anne Frank’s diary, Cynthia Ozick calls into question the wisdom of creating dramas that offer “cheap sentimentality at the expense of a great catastrophe.” And in the weakest moments of Nine Armenians, this is precisely what Ayvazian has done.

Matters are not helped by Stevi Marks’s production, which boasts a few excellent performances but makes Nine Armenians even less subtle, stressing accessibility and clarity to the point that the tragedies become not only understandable but forgettable. Reading Ani’s letters from Armenia aloud would be enough–we don’t need to see the character silhouetted against the backdrop in a solemn Armenian dance. James McCammond and Consuelo Allen as John and Armine give beautifully nuanced performances, but as directed their children are sickeningly sweet and two-dimensional, as if full characters blossomed only in adulthood. As Ani, Deborah King gives a performance so saccharine and full of wide-eyed children’s-theater enthusiasm that instead of emerging the heroine she’s clearly intended to be she becomes a sort of Goldilocks we’d like to see the three bears devour. There’s precious little ambiguity or complexity in Ayvazian’s drama, and even less in Apple Tree’s production.

It’s this sort of blandness and accessibility that renders all suffering equal and all spectators guiltless, allowing people to go home muttering, “Well, we’ve certainly heard all this before.” Perhaps the Armenian and Jewish holocausts should be left to documentarians and historians like Claude Lanzman and Peter Weiss: their simply stated facts and accounts are likely to register far more profoundly than this sort of rote domestic drama.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jennifer Girad.