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Theater Review: Assadourian Shines in ‘Happiest Song,’ Satamian Company Gets Stuck in ‘Net’

ATTENTION! The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is an Armenian independent democratic state.
Happiest Song Plays Last (Vaneh Assadourian) (4)

Vaneh Assadourian and Kamal Marayati in “The Happiest Song Plays Last.” Photo by Gio Solis.


BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN


Theater aficionados in Los Angeles enjoyed a rare opportunity over the past couple of months, as the plays by Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegría Hudes that comprise the “Elliot” trilogy were successively staged by venerable companies across the Southland. The final entry in that trilogy, “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” featured Vaneh Assadourian in a key role, and her performance in the Latino Theater Company’s production at the Los Angeles Theater Center was, in a word, splendid.


“Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue,” which kicked off the trilogy at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in February, begins the story of the title character as he enlists in the armed forces (following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather) and is dispatched to war. “Water by the Spoonful,” which played at the Mark Taper Forum, focuses on Elliot after he suffers a leg injury and returns home to Philadelphia, where he contends with his putative mother’s death and his real mother’s addiction to drugs. “Happiest Song” follows Elliot to Jordan, where he is shooting a military film opposite Shar, an Arab-American actress. Shar’s budding relationship with Elliot, as he struggles with the war’s residual trauma, serves as one of the play’s major storylines.


While the production (which closed on March 19) tended toward earnestness to the point of being saccharine, Assadourian’s vibrant portrayal was among its highlights. Assadourian exhibited Shar’s playful side as effectively as she captured her moments of heartbreak. Her performance was altogether authentic and nuanced on a number of levels, including the exploration of Shar’s hyphenated identity.


Having already proven her talents behind the scenes as director of the Hamazkayin Theatre Company’s inaugural production – the children’s play “The Secret of the Flower Pot” – Assadourian was able to showcase her acting range in “Happiest Song.” If these experiences are any indication, her next choice of project, either on stage or off, is sure to be worth seeing.


I can’t say as much for the productions of the Krikor Satamian Theatre Company – an endless stream of farces which are so repetitive (in plot and staging, both) that one of my previous reviews could conceivably be substituted for this present write-up of the ensemble’s latest offering, Ray Cooney’s “Caught in the Net,” which runs through April 15.


Judging by the number of Cooney plays that Satamian has staged, you’d think the man was the Shakespeare of our times. He is not. At best, he’s a third-tier (albeit popular) writer of lowbrow fare, and “Caught in the Net” is no exception.


Re-titled, in Armenian, as “Yergou Gnig, Meg Erig” (slang for Two Wives, One Husband), the play is billed as Part II, since it’s a sequel. Apparently, its predecessor, “Run for Your Wife” – the story of a taxi driver named Haigaz who is married to two different women – warranted further telling.


Arpi Samuelian and Aram Muradian in "Caught in the Net."

Arpi Samuelian and Aram Muradian in “Caught in the Net.”


“Caught in the Net” picks up Haigaz’s story 18 years later, as the children he’s had with the two women – a son with one and a daughter with the other – are in their teens. When the kids accidentally connect via the Internet and plan to meet – perhaps to explore a romance, since they don’t know they’re related – Haigaz sets out to prevent their encounter at all costs. Central to his shenanigans are his friend Hagop, who helps him run interference, and Hagop’s elderly father.


Even by the standards of farce, the plot is preposterous, and the writing manages to dole out offense based on age, ethnicity (a scene involving a phone call to a Chinese restaurant is cringe-worthy), and gender. More than once, women are literally locked in various rooms, yelling to be let out. I’ve previously written that “the company seems downright stuck in the 19th century,” but it bears repeating here.


Matters are helped, somewhat, by the fact that the cast is mostly comprised of seasoned Satamian performers (although the age-inappropriate casting strains credulity, as actresses who look to be twentysomething play Haigaz’s middle-aged wives). Aram Muradian’s performance as Hagop is actually the production’s saving grace. Muradian has been the lead in one of my own plays, so my regard for his talent is no secret. Here, he delivers another of his skillful performances, maximizing every comic opportunity. In his depiction of Hagop’s father, Kevork Keushkerian achieves a number of hilarious moments as well.


Roupen Harmandayan makes a valiant effort to make Haigaz’s crisis convincing, but his portrayal was still a work in progress at the performance I saw, as was his command of his character’s lines. Narine Avakian and Arpi Samuelian are both strong actresses (Avakian’s apoplectic reactions are often priceless), but they are wasted in thankless roles, as is Peter Nishan, who has been one of the brightest additions to the ensemble in recent years.


Plot twists at the end of the play add some flavor to the proceedings, but they ultimately end up as unsavory as everything that came before. I left the venue, as I have after every Cooney play, hoping it was the last revival of his works that I had to endure.


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.

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