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On the Couch with Nora Armani

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Can spontaneity ever be effectively pre-scripted? With the right writer, the illusion of an unforeseen event so disrupting the proceedings as to throw an onstage performer into turmoil might play, but while there are a number of very good things about On the Couch with Nora Armani at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the writer and star's attempts to make the planned look unplanned are not among them.

This moment occurs soon after the start of the show, when Armani has announced that she's going to be presenting an evening of notable excerpts from world drama. She's only just begun this daunting undertaking when, apparently too pained to continue, she informs us that there's someone in the audience whose very presence has so upset her that can't go on with her prepared presentation.

Attempting to recover from this shock leads Armani on a soul-searching walk down memory lane, during which she finally feels free to share intimate secrets about her life and family. Born in Egypt to Armenian parents, she spent a fair amount of time in a number of other countries, including England and France, before finally settling in the United States. After all this moving, she's interested in truly exploring the question of her background and identity. Where did she came from, and where is she going? What places, people, and events made her who she is, and why? What does she have to offer a friend, a lover, or even an audience? The answer to that last question, it turns out, is quite a bit.

Armani proves herself an extremely natural actress and a superb storyteller, more than capable of carrying an evening. She has an air of quiet, unassuming sophistication that gives her an otherworldly, yet approachable girl-next-door quality that allows her to cut a commanding stage presence. Her knowing, expressive eyes are generally her preferred method of communication, and they explain much about her, seeming to smile or weep independently of her face, but the presence or absence of her gleaming white smile also assists her in captivating with the simplest of thoughts.

But listen to her invoke the word "ethnic," as if she's spitting it out from the very depths of her being. It's a word that has haunted her all her life, not only making it difficult for her to find suitable acting work, but hampering the quest for identity that she now has no choice but to undertake in front of us. Once she gives over to this idea - it's a conceit, yes, but only rarely feels like one - Armani imbues stories about her grandparents meeting, her own immigration to the United States, or any number of other subjects with a such a personal quality that she ensures she'll keep your attention once you give it to her.

The significant enjoyment of watching and listening to Armani makes her utilization of that initial unwieldy dramatic device even more distracting. The immediately transparent nature of her ruse, and the awkward way she attempts to re-establish it throughout the evening without providing a sufficient dramatic payoff, cuts jagged edges into an otherwise smoothly polished and truly fascinating theatre piece. Though director François Kergourlay can't help Armani overcome this stumbling block, he nicely keeps her on track by highlighting the play's intrinsic stream-of-consciousness style.

It's that style - combined with the star's innate likeability - that allows On the Couch with Nora Armani to function at its intriguing, enveloping best; those rewarding moments of crystalline clarity only occur when Armani gives herself the freedom to actually be herself. But during Armani's search for understanding that constitutes the play, it's impossible for us not to wish she would allow that to happen earlier and more often than it does.

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Midtown International Theatre Festival
On the Couch with Nora Armani
Through July 30
Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission
WorkShop Theatre, MainStage Space, 4th Floor, 312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: SmartTix 212.868.4444