Sex, God and Little Armenians
As a child in 1967, I remember sitting in the passenger seat of our family’s ’65 Ford Fairlane, driving along the back roads of Sonoma County while my dad, at the wheel, listened to Chuck Cecil’s radio show, The Swingin’ Years, featuring big bands of the ’40s — the decade of my father’s youth. While apple orchards and chicken farms whizzed by, my dad would name every song from the opening chord. He played string bass in local jazz bands and classical orchestras, and when the Beatles captured the hearts of teens across the country, he simply wasn’t interested. In his opinion, they just didn’t have the musical chops of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald or his favorite, Frank Sinatra.
My father and the big bands he was weaned on — once a centerpiece of American culture — are now ghost presences. Today, L.A.’s oldie FM radio stations, KRTH and KLOS, replay the Stones and the Beatles et al. in endless nostalgic loops for baby boomers who feel that Fergie, Snoop Dogg or Christina Aguilera just don’t have the chops of, say, Van Morrison or Rod Stewart. And so it goes, the endless procession of what we presume to be seminal slowly trudging to the outskirts of oblivion.
Two plays on local stages feature characters feeling adrift, on the wrong side of a generation gap, their core values upended by youth.
Anthony Mora’s Bang!, playing in Toluca Lake’s Sidewalk Studio Theater, concerns 40-year-old journalist John (Rico Simonini) and a precocious 17-year-old damsel-in-distress named Janie (Jennifer Tetlow), who’s caught between a cult she’s about to enter (headed by an ex-con) and the deprogrammer her mother has hired to hoist her back to “reality.” Janie’s mother has also hired — and had an affair with — John’s childhood friend, an attorney named Charley, who’s far more concerned about the pernicious effects of the deprogrammer than those of the cult. John intervenes on Charley’s behalf, stepping into Janie’s life and whisking the reluctant Lolita away to the secret refuge of John’s New York apartment.
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In those few days back East, the interplay between John (an awkward bundle of frayed nerves from his marital failure and consequent sexual abyss) and the psychotic virgin seductress (who’s both a provocateur and the fountain of John’s lost youth) is a study of characters untethered from guiding principles. Their most erotic intersection comes in a scene of mutual masturbation. The self-involved intensity of that act, with its abject isolation, is an astonishing and perverse depiction of the gap not only between men and women but between generations aching but unable to merge. What unfolds in Mora’s novel, on which he bases his play, is a blend of Nabokov and Bret Easton Ellis, and closely resembles Jane Campion’s movie Holy Smoke, though the Campion film appeared a year after Bang!’s first printing, in 1998. Mora’s play is a shadow of his novel, with too many offstage characters and frayed story connections that are fully developed in the book. Still, Christian Kennedy’s direction of the shadow play has a rawness that is both excruciating and exciting.
Roberto Sanz Sanchez, playing a white-clad, sandaled guru, opens the drama with a monologue. On the night I attended the tiny theater, Sanchez’s performance was slightly self-conscious from the get-go, but about half a minute into his soliloquy, the sound of somebody urinating into a backstage toilet accompanied him — presumably some fellow actor or stagehand, unaware that the play had begun. Audience heads turned in the direction of the waterfall and its eventual cessation, everyone anticipating the flush that never came. Through all this, Sanchez persevered with stoic determination and Olympian powers of concentration.
The play contains many scenes, between which director Kennedy orchestrates momentum-stifling set changes in dark silence. The nondescript, uncredited set — a pullout bed, a sofa and a table — contributes to an anti-theatricality that, after a while, has a perplexing seductiveness. This may also be the effect of Tetlow and Simonini’s completely unmannered presence, which smacks more of an improvisation than a play. Tetlow endows her svelte, sassy blonde Janie with Valley-girl intonations, while Simonini’s tongue-tied journalist sounds straight out of Jersey. The pair’s theater-vérité acting style leaves us not quite knowing what’s going to happen next — how the plot is going to turn, or whether or not lines will be remembered — which gives the production an unorthodox tension-laced appeal. All of which proves that theater doesn’t have to be polished to be engaging, though, clearly, lack of polish is not necessarily a formula for success. Ann Convery is also quite good as one of the cult’s fallen disciples.
Under the siege of Janie’s blunt appraisals, elliptical reasoning, and bouts of pouting and mockery, John’s ostensible rescue of her is actually a direct challenge to who he is and where he thinks he’s going in life. And neither of the characters emerges the better for it.
In Little Armenia, at Hollywood’s Fountain Theater, an Armenian American father, Gevorg (Jack Kandel), having already suffered one heart attack, tries desperately to preserve the values of his culture, and his generation, by preventing the marriage of his daughter, Siran (Karine Chakarian), to a non-Armenian (Hunter Lee Hughes). What’s next? Forbidding her to listen to Mick Jagger? Such rigid orthodoxy barely works on the streets of Kabul, let alone Hollywood, where the play is set. Gevorg’s attitude may be truthful, but his folly is obvious. Siran’s brother, Ashot (an appealing performance by Ludwig Manukian), narrates the play. At age 30, he finds himself torn between the Old World and the New, reckoning with the paradoxes of assimilation into American life, as well as his own prejudices. The play is a compilation of his observations on the eponymous neighborhood bordering Hollywood Boulevard, between Vermont and Western.
Woman friends Beatrice and Azniv (Maro Ajemian and Anoush Nevart) confide to each other in church and nudge their punch lines about moving up to Glendale. Azniv wants to open a vegetable shop. Suddenly, Beatrice has cancer. (There has to be a more original way to elicit pathos.) A teenager (Johnny Giacalone) drops out of high school to work at Jons grocery store. He’s torn between the integrity of one friend (Salem Michael) from a wealthy family, and the sleazy appeal of a street thief (RB Dilanchian). In an incident surrounding some stolen money, he makes a decision to follow his moral compass for no particular reason that’s dramatized. Earnest and observant, Little Armenia banks on characters so diligently researched that they border on stereotypes, slogging through intergenerational conflicts with a romanticism that’s almost ingratiating. What’s missing are the unexpected turns that make any story memorable. Dylan Thomas’ play Under Milk Wood — a portrait of a village, filled with poetry and idiosyncratic characters — comes to mind, as does the oddball charm of Liev Schreiber’s film Everything Is Illuminated, about an American visiting his ancestors’ Ukrainian village and landing upon some harrowing truths about generational divides. As part of a community-outreach effort, the theater commissioned Armenian writers Lory Bedekian, Aram Kouyoumdjian and Shahé Mankerian to develop this script about the neighborhood surrounding the theater. Little Armenia is a nice try, a snapshot that really needs to be a portrait.?
BANG! | By ANTHONY MORA | At the SIDEWALK STUDIO THEATER, 4150 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake | Through September 22 | (818) 558-5702
LITTLE ARMENIA | By LORY BEDEKIAN, ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN and SHAHÉ MANKERIAN | At the FOUNTAIN THEATER, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood | Through September 3 | (323) 663-1525
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