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Leslie Ayvazian in High Dive.
(Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
Three weeks before Leslie Ayvazian's 50th birthday, which couldn't have been that long ago from the look of things, the actress-playwright vacationed on a Greek island with her husband and 11-year-old son. One day at the hotel pool, she climbed atop the high dive, thinking she might summon the courage to jump off into water that seemed impossibly far away. But she stalled, at first gripping the metal bars and eventually crouching so low that her cheek was touching the board.

Recalling this incident in High Dive, an hour-long one-woman monologue, Ayvazian--dressed simply in casual black clothes and with her auburn hair flowing--fills that long stall with reminiscences of her life. Starting with the diving vacation, during which she learns that the island on which her family has stopped is the hottest spot on the globe, she then goes on to report at amusing length about other ill-fated journeys. There was the one in Captiva when an earthquake led eventually to a tidal wave, and the one where she was faced with having to cross a rope-and-slat bridge over a chasm at the bottom of which was a roaring stream.

"I imagined I was, without knowing it, a person who would like to do that," Ayvazian explains about some of her exploits on the circuitous road to her current show. Gearing up for her acting career, she had to take odd jobs in show business, such as working with Mickey Rooney in stock--until he fired her. She took odd jobs out of show business as well, at different times joining VISTA and toiling as a cable television installer. In the latter instance, she was made foreman of her crew because of her ability to speak in coherent sentences, bit a lack of command of drilling skills eventually did her in.

As Ayvazian goes on about marrying a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant whose upbringing and early socializing had little in common with her Armenian background, it becomes clear that she's had a rather nice life with highs and lows pretty much in the normal range. (She never mentions her successful autobiographical play, Nine Armenians.) Indeed, it might occur to a particularly demanding audience member, wondering why he or she is listening to her, that there's really nothing out of the ordinary in Ayvazian's stand-up memoir. Put another, more positive way, a ticket buyer might conclude that everyone has a story worth an hour of someone else's time--particularly if, as has happened for Ayvazian, Neil Patel can design an unobtrusive set for the retelling and Brian MacDevitt can light it with the hint of so many gorgeous sunsets and sunrises.

Perhaps sensing that her tell-all (tell-most? tell-some?) account needs a gimmick, Ayvazian has landed on a delightful one that may be the most appealing part of her show. Rather than play the parts of all the people who feature in her story, she circulates among the patrons as they enter and hands out pages of dialogue. When she gets to a line where she says, for instance, "And then my son said," the person to whom she's assigned that role chimes in. (On the night I was there, the young woman tapped to be Ayvazian's boy gave a sterling reading, likeable and tolerant and all the while concerned about his mom clinging to that diving board.) The crowd eats this up. "I always wanted to do a one-person show with a large cast," Ayvazian says in her introductory remarks--and that's just what she does. to everyone's enjoyment.

Curiously, while just about every one of the 34 non-pros Ayvazian pressed into cold readings at the performance I attended did admirably, Ayvazian's performance was and may continue to be problematic; not off-putting, really, but problematic. A demonstrative woman who could be described as "actress-y," she speaks to the audience as if she's addressing the hard-of-hearing, or, like a kindergarten teacher, explaining on the first day of school what the students can expect. She also gesticulates constantly, maybe because she unconsciously senses the need to augment the thinness of her tale. For example, when delivering sentences in iambic pentameter (a common speech pattern), she has a gesture for every stressed syllable: five measures, five gestures. Eventually, these waving arms and hands tapping the air become a performance tic that neither she nor the usually immaculate director, David Warren, seem to notice.

Ayvazian does have something to say, something that doesn't take long to figure out--perhaps no longer than the split second it takes to read the title of her show. Her high dive is (need it be pointed out?) a metaphor for all the times when the average person is challenged to take some figurative high dive or other. Since her decision to dive or not to dive provides the greater part of the brief evening's suspense, her secret is safe here. But it's probably not revealing too much to say that the moral lesson vouchsafed once she reaches a conclusion carries deceptive weight: Not every obstacle in our paths has to be met since, during the course of a life, we meet enough of them.

While Ayvazian is recalling the long minutes during which she gripped that rail, it's likely that more than one spectator is thinking, "I'd gladly jump off a high dive 100 times before I'd get up in front of a roomful of paying customers and run the risk of looking like a complete ass as I fill them in about myself." Seen from one perspective, then, Ayvazian absolutely goes through with her high dive. When she hits the water, it's not with a bellywhop's painful splat, but neither does she make the kind of clean entry warranting a perfect 10.

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