A SLIGHT CHANGE OF PACE - PLAYWRIGHT RON SIMONIAN KEEPS THE ODD - CHARACTERS BUT NOT THE ODD STORY LINE IN 'DESERT HOLIDAY'
January 19, 2001 By ROBERT TRUSSELL Publication: The Kansas City Star
No guns. No dismemberments. No cannibalism. No grotesqueries at all, really - just a search for love by very odd people in very strange places. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the other side of Ron Simonian. Tonight the Unicorn Theatre opens "Slight Defect, a Desert Holiday," and while the comedy has its share of singular Simonian absurdities and bizarre twists, by the standards of Kansas City's most interesting playwright this piece is saturated with sweetness and light. "I don't want to be the gun-totin' playwright anymore," the 35-year-old Simonian said recently. He said it like he meant it. Simonian contends that his intentions have always been misunderstood, that he hasn't just been writing screenplays and transposing them to the stage. The reality is that "Desert Holiday," as it was originally called, is one of the first pieces he wrote. But his local reputation as a specialist in morbid, violent comedy was earned with a succession of productions that began in 1992 with a shoestring staging of "Thanatos" in a warehouse space off Southwest Boulevard. In that play, two disaster relief workers meet their destiny in a hail of bullets in a motel at the edge of the earth. The play was given a reading the following year and received a fully professional production at the Unicorn in 1994; in '95 it was given a limited run in a walk-up blackbox theater on New York's 42nd Street. His next local show was "Bagheads," a cannibalistic fantasy satirizing pop psychology; next came "Arms and Legs," an absurdist send-up of the media's penchant for exploiting horrific violence; then there was "At the Feet of Doves," a colloquy between two hired killers as they bury their most recent victim; and local audiences also saw "Zone 3," a gun-laden story of assassins working for a secretive agency. But "Slight Defect" is something different. A workshop version staged more than two years ago at the Westport Coffee House revealed a play that was lighthearted, in a "Twilight Zone"-ish way, in which Simonian's compassion for his characters was obvious. The playwright explained the play's origin: In the early 1990s he was acting in a play based on the life of Jesse James by another estimable local playwright, Frank Higgins. Right after the first staging of "Thanatos," Higgins invited Simonian to submit a script for an evening of one-acts. "Frank asked me if I had one, and I lied and said I did, and I ran home and wrote this," Simonian said. "It was in a real embryonic form. It was about 20 minutes long and had a much different theme to it, but it basically consisted of a lot of the seeds ... " The bill of one-acts, which also included short works by Higgins and Felicia Londre, was performed for three nights at the City in Motion dance theater. Cynthia Levin, artistic director of the Unicorn, and Sidonie Garrett, who would direct productions of "Thanatos" in Kansas City and New York, were in the audience. "Cynthia had always said there was something there that needed to be fleshed out," he said. "About two years later we had a staged reading of it here, and that's where the show basically changed its whole shape." The play tells the story of Zack, a toilet salesman whose career has seen better days. He heads to Las Vegas with the hope of selling the latest toilet technology to the MGM Grand, but his life takes an unexpected direction after he picks up a hitchhiker who urges him to liberate himself from the restrictions of middle-class values. At a diner he meets the strangely alluring Leona and senses the opportunity for spontaneous romance; but their sudden relationship leads to unimagined corners of the human psyche. Simonian, whose childhood and adolescence were divided between Johnson County and Los Angeles, recalls a driving trip through the southwest when the family moved back to L.A. in the early '70s. "I was young and I remember the excitement of touching the window of the car and having it feel so hot," he said. "There was something about the emptiness of that journey that might have stuck with me. "But for the most part this play was just basically wanting to write something about trying to find a connection in a world that tends to be very lonely but still very crowded. That's one element about society that's always confused me. How can we be so populated and yet so many of us be so closed off?" Levin, who has been among Simonian's most enthusiastic champions, said: "I have to say that is a Ron Simonian theme. Always, it's about one's quest for intimacy, communication, companionship. It's usually just a warped way to get there."The company he keeps Members of the creative team bringing Simonian's play to life at the Unicorn have been associated with the writer to some extent for years. Garrett had staged "Thanatos" twice and "Bagheads" once, and she has been an actor in a reading of "Bagheads." She also directed the 1998 workshop production of "Desert Holiday." Both Kathleen Warfel and Richard Alan Nichols appeared in that version of the show, as did Matt Rapport and David Fritts. Fritts performed in "Zone 3" and Rapport has been seen in "Thanatos," "Bagheads" and "At the Feet of Doves." Ask these artists of which playwright Simonian reminds them and you get a range of responses. Fritts volunteers Sam Shepard; Rapport votes for Shepard, but also for David Mamet; Nichols, after first saying, "nobody comes to mind," finally coughs up Craig Lucas. And Warfel offers the most complex response: "There's a sort of Durang-Mamet-Orton-like quality, maybe," she said. "That's a pretty odd combo, but those are the ones that come to mind." Fritts and his colleagues agreed that despite the undeniable strangeness of Simonian's plays, there's always a kernel of reality at the center. "Given the sort of out-there circumstances, it's not like he turns around and has somebody do something that's not in their character to do," Fritts said. "The behavior is consistent. And he always makes me laugh. I've always been in tune with his sense of humor." The challenge for the actor, it seems, is finding the reality amid all the oddness. "His stuff is really kind of strange and far-out, but you really can kind of track it so that it makes some kind of illogical sense, if you know what I mean," Nichols said. Warfel said she has been intrigued with Simonian's work since she saw "Thanatos." "He's got a real drive with his writing that is unusual for stage work," she said. "It's got a certain amount of free association in it, but it all leads someplace, and you have to trust that sometimes ... He's got his build and climax and denouement; all those things are there, but you're not taken along the normal path another play might take you." Garrett, the director, has always demonstrated an affinity for Simonian's writing and has helped her actors illuminate the nooks and crannies of their characters each time she's staged one of his scripts. Indeed, the New York production of "Thanatos" earned her and the Kansas City cast a positive review in the New York Times (balanced against a slam in the Village Voice. "We seem to share a similar sensibility, and I'm not sure exactly why ... " she says. "I think he leaves certain things open to interpretation. I think it's evocative writing. I think it leaves people talking when they leave the theater. I think it infuriates people." Simonian is lucky: For a playwright to be able to develop his talent with a more-or-less permanent group of actors and directors - and a theater of the Unicorn's caliber to repeatedly stage world premieres of his work - is unusual in a town the size of Kansas City. It's unusual anywhere. Simonian said it was that opportunity that allowed him to get "Slight Defect" to its current state. "(There were) things that I was trying to say way back when but didn't have the skills to say them," he said. "Now I can look back as a father, someone who has experienced pain, who has experienced loss, and happiness, and understand what risk really is. "I think I had good qualities back then that I didn't nurture, and I developed some bad qualities ... that I needed to look back on. (This play) is a real hybrid of what I am as a writer. And I feel good about that." To reach Robert Trussell, assistant arts editor and theater critic, call (816) 234-4765 or send e-mail to email@example.com THE SHOW "Slight Defect, a Desert Holiday" opens tonight and continues through Feb. 4 at the Unicorn Theatre. Tickets cost $18 to $22 depending on the day of the show. Call (816) 531-7529. Kansas City Star, The (MO) Date: January 19, 2001 Page: 20 Copyright 2001 The Kansas City Star Co.