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Starting with a laptop. Starting with a laptop that’s turned on. No.
Starting with turning on a laptop. Starting with turning on a brushed-aluminum laptop on a leather-topped desk with an opened playbill next to it. Starting with turning on a laptop on a desk with a playbill next to it and looking in the playbill.
Starting with looking in a playbill—while glaring.
This, one imagines, is how the playwright and performer Leslie Ayvazian, she of the celebrated Nine Armenians, might begin a review of her latest play, Rosemary and I, were she a critic rather than the perpetrator. She opens her performance at MetroStage in just such a fashion, after all, standing downstage left, sketching out an opening image and talking herself through a series of meticulous revisions, establishing pretty clearly that her tale of mother-daughter discovery is going to be as much about the difficulty of getting started, the perilous choosing of an entry point into a story, as about anything else. Thank you, madam, we get it. Could we possibly move along now?
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It’s a kind of creative paralysis that Ayvazian captures in these repeated flashes of obsessiveness—yes, “repeated”; don’t think the “Starting with…” device won’t get reused—and until you discover its roots in her character’s relationship with her globe-trotting singer mother (an elegant Judith Roberts) and her distant, fussy father (Sam Groom), you’ll hear those endless circlings as vaguely Steinian. (“All of it to be as a wife has a cow. Nearly all of it to be as a wife has a cow….”) But once Ayvazian makes it clear where she’s coming from—which doesn’t happen until rather late in her 75-minute exegesis, after we’ve met Mom and Dad and the pianist (a curiously severe Jewell Robinson) who was something like Mom’s mother and servant and companion (and though we’ve drifted away from our girl Gertrude we’ll still get around to lesbian urges and sun-washed outdoor celebrations of the female anatomy)—you’ll hear them as distinctly Wassersteinian. And that’s a much less interesting flavor of feminism indeed.
What’s happened, you see, is that Ayvazian’s character, Julia, has discovered (in the pages, o hoary device, of a diary) that there was a good deal more than rehearsal going on between Rosemary and her female accompanist. That revelation, as you’d expect for a woman whose life seems to have involved an extended series of reactions to her mother’s self-absorption, to their distance from one another, sparks a bit of a meltdown—and inevitably, because this is a touchy-feely exercise in Wassersteinian weepiness (see The Heidi Chronicles), a breakthrough.
Ayvazian, let us acknowledge, demonstrates formidable craft here. She moves as precisely as a dancer; she describes objects and incidents with a novelist’s gift for detail. She has a certain sense of the lyrical, too, and she writes poignant as easily as she writes funny. The ensemble does perfectly serviceable work, too, though Ayvazian, with her striking, angular features and her confident presence, makes a stronger impression than any of her putative relatives. Co-directors Olympia Dukakis and Nancy Robillard incorporate a number of graceful touches—Chris Lee is responsible for the exquisite lighting, and John Hodian and Bet Williams provide lovely, expressive music to underscore certain sequences—but they allow the evening to congeal far too often. At an hour and quarter, this is a lean show, but with all those long glances, meaningful pauses, and narrative reboots, it moves like an office drone after a plateful of carbohydrates.
All that craft, anyway, turns out to be deployed in the service of something exceedingly personal—something exclusionary, even, in its focus. Autobiographical shows are a theatrical staple, but they’re of lasting interest only insofar as they tell us as much about ourselves, about each other, as they tell us about their subjects. Yes, I’m aware that Ayvazian may not be writing about herself here, though I’m far from convinced. And no, since you ask: I don’t believe I do ever want to see another gay man get naked and discuss his pain, either. All forms of exhibitionist self-discovery are hereby declared equally suspect. If you need to get in touch with your penis or your vulva or your inner child, consider paying a shrink. Don’t ask us to pay for the privilege of watching you.
We can learn a little something from Rosemary and Julia, to be fair, about the perils of memory, the traps of need, the power of parental expectations to cripple a sensitive young artist-in-waiting. Nothing shatteringly new, though, and not enough to make Rosemary and I more exciting than a well-structured self-help session. CP