Is an Armenian comedy an oxymoron? Leah Ryan, a writer fiercely ambivalent about her Armenian descent, seems to think so. Her "comedy," Bleach, is an intensely personal play about how much easier it is to tell people you're Italian ... about the day you wake up and realize you don't remember what color your hair is supposed to be, really. More specifically, Bleach deals with three generations of Armenian-American women, and the inevitable loss of traditions as the roots to an ancient culture dwindle with each succeeding generation.
Bleach is an oddly affecting play. By all rights, it shouldn't be: exploring the topical themes of cultural diaspora and immigration, and their psychological legacies, family dysfunction and addiction, Bleach has more themes, metaphors, and storylines than the soap opera several of its characters are addicted to. It flashes back and forth in time and reality without warning, has moments that should be hysterically funny that aren't, and moments that are hysterically funny that shouldn't be funny at all. Nothing is concise, yet all the relevant (and irrelevant) points are made in a bare 90 minutes. And as directed by Ed Cheetham, performances that on the surface were flat, and scenes that made absolutely no sense while in the theatre, resonated for hours afterward with a haunting, surreal fascination. It was difficult to sit through, but once experienced, impossible to shake off.
In the pivotal role of Julie O'Connor, a lost soul trying to find herself in the midst of swirling cultural and generational bitterness, Moira Gentry was strangely distant from the action, giving her line readings a flat, breathy delivery reminiscent of Melanie Griffith at her worst. But like the evening itself, her performance was an oxymoron: awfully good. Gentry's very fragility cut right to the bone of her character on an emotional, gut level that was wrenching in its confused anguish.
Diane DiBernardo, as Julie's bitter, intrusive mother, and Diane Reiners, as Julie's 96-year-old Armenian great-grandmother, were both far too young for their roles. Nevertheless, they acquitted themselves valiantly in performances of admirable intelligence. Peter Brydges, as a perpetually drunken customer of the bar Julie frequents, and Shawn Corbett, as the prototypical Irish bartender, did what they could with their limited roles, but Michael Murphy was splendid as the enigmatic Bob, an Armenian bar patron whose presence is a painful reminder of the heritage Julie would rather forget.
Murphy also designed the purposely shabby unit set, and Robert Emmet Finn's all-encompassing sound design provided a subtle, atmospheric anchor to James Telfer's appropriately oppressive lighting. The costumes (uncredited) looked like they were pulled from the actors' closets, also appropriate.
Pushing buttons and dispensing darts with a reckless but accurate abandon, Bleach is a play that refuses to follow traditional forms and unleashes all sorts of conflicts and issues that remain unresolved. And yet it all worked in a messy, sprawling and surprisingly powerful way. Sort of like life.
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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita