ONE ARMENIAN, ONE TURK, ONE ROOM –
WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
“Your blondness has not served you the way we had hoped,” says a woman to her daughter, as a husband and father is dying of heart failure in a hospital bed. The line perfectly captures the old world and the new in a loaded barb that has no possible reply. It is absurdist yet emotionally revealing. I gasped a little when I heard it, in pleasure at the writing, but also with a bit of revulsion, as its ugliness landed on the blonde daughter. This is something she has likely heard before. It has the power still to wound but is not a surprise attack.
We are in a hospital room in 100 Aprils, the Rogue Machine’s world premiere at the Met Theatre. It is 1982. The Armenian Genocide of 1915 looms large in the mind of John as he dies, powering fevered dreams that turn his doctor of Turkish descent into a soldier, lurking menacingly as he denies the monstrous event that perhaps defined John’s life. It is certainly defining his death. John is a doctor himself, and an addict, in withdrawal from self-administered Demerol. His lungs are filling with fluid. There will be no recovery.
John cries out for his shot, but his wife, Beatrice, is clipped and unemotional. “There will be no more shots, John,” she says, closing the matter for discussion. He has a long history of forged prescriptions, stolen syringes, and trips to rehab. “I brought you a packet of Crystal Light,” she says, as if that is all she has left to give. She is bored by his confusion and exhausted from the effort of caring. It all seems distasteful to her — John’s torment, her daughter’s incompetence and emotionalism, and she seems uninterested in joining John in his outrage over the genocide. She has heard it all before.
Their daughter, Arlene, is a librarian who seems to believe she can tidy her father back into health. She washes pajamas, wipes up spills, and tries to escape the hospital room every chance she gets. She knits small squares in the waiting room. “A quilt for a mouse or a bug.” She has a child’s steadfast belief that her father might get better. His condescension toward her doesn’t feel as personal as her mother’s (John is condescending to everyone) but it makes her anxious. There must be something she can do. There is nothing.
John’s consciousness goes in and out of reality. At first, it seems his hallucinations are his alone, but then Beatrice shows up in one — or does she? She has a letter opener at the Turkish soldier’s throat. Is it John’s fantasy or hers? For that matter, is it a fantasy at all? It emerges that her connection to family history is every bit as strong as John’s. They remember the same cast of characters, the same jokes. The mother from the old country with the skin of an elephant and the eyes of a bear; the shoemaker father forced to go barefoot as he repairs the boots of Turkish soldiers; the suffering of all the dead ancestors.
Bitter and helpless, John attacks all Turks, including his doctor, for denying the genocide. “I see Turkish soldiers in the woods setting Armenian girls on fire!” “We Turks are used to Armenian lies,” the doctor (or is it the soldier?) sneers. “You bully us with your sorrow.” Beatrice and Arlene keep the doctor from administering the final dose of morphine that will allow John to die without pain. Suddenly they give John’s fury physical form, shocking us and themselves with their bottled-up passion
I love playwright Leslie Ayvazian’s use of language. She has many tart observations. John is “a dying man, not allowing himself to die, because he never allowed himself to live.” The doctor refers to Beatrice and Arlene as advocates. “At one time,” he says, “They were just called visitors. Times change.” And she gets at something I haven’t seen explored before, how even the righteous can become bored by their own tragedies. Someone must pay. Who? The Turks. Why? To provide “closure?” If they admitted all, would that ease the sense of loss or provide comfort to the grieving? Who are the survivors grieving anyway? Their loved ones or themselves? Victimhood as a community’s defining characteristic is a dead end. I think Ayvazian sees that, even as she commits to drawing attention to the suffering. The tragedy of John’s death has everything and nothing to do with being a child of genocide.
I feel that about my own communities — gay, Jewish, Latino — when we define our forebears as martyrs, we risk taking away their very humanity. The “right” way to balance respect for past horror with the pragmatism of moving on is often elusive and leaves one open to resentment for being alive.
Rogue Machine founding artistic director John Perrin Flynn is believable and touching as John, approaching the role with a simple, deep commitment. As Beatrice, the playwright does a memorable double act. Leslie Ayvazian speaks with droll, deadpan precision and moves with an insouciance worthy of Lauren Bacall. Her performance is a triumph.
Rachel Sorsa gives the bruised and flustered Arlene a poignance that serves the play well. I could do without her determined clomping on and off stage though. It only calls attention to the structural problem of creating scenes for two characters to be alone. Robertson Dean plays the doctor/soldier role of Ahmet with understated elegance and Janet Song makes the small role of a nurse into a small gem.Michael Arabian gets the style of the piece exactly right. Memories may be literal, but also flexible, hazy, and haphazard. There is a purposely tedious joke that is referred to a couple of times before becoming a rather touching end piece. It involves anthropomorphic pots and has a punch line that is apparently uproarious if you are from the Old Country, and impenetrable if you are not. Humor can be generational and culturally specific. Just like pain.