'ARMS AND LEGS' BLUDGEONS UNICORN AUDIENCE - ACTING IS STRONG, BUT MESSAGE IS OBVIOUS; THERE ARE NO NEW TWISTS.
November 3, 1995 By ROBERT TRUSSELL Publication: The Kansas City Star
Talented local playwright Ron Simonian has returned with ``Arms and Legs,'' a black comedy that bludgeons the audience with one basic message: Modern life is a moral pesthole. Like Simonian's earlier play, ``Thanatos,'' this one deals with American attitudes about violence in a quirky style that balances comedy and horror in roughly equal parts. This play goes a step beyond by indicting mass media - specifically television news and the movies - for their relentless encouragement of the victim mindset and ruthless exploitation of human tragedy. Well, now, those are valid points, to be sure. There's just one problem: Anyone with a brain and a television already knows our social values are all screwed up and that a major part of the blame can reasonably be attributed to the news and entertainment media. The result is a theater piece that plays like a staged tantrum - an epithetladen diatribe that screams the obvious for two hours.Missing are the original twists, startling surprises and philosophical underpinnings that made ``Thanatos'' special. Even so, the play provides a platform for some strong performances and a notable local directing debut by Julie Nessen.Nessen succeeds in giving the play a potent rhythm - no easy task in an episodic script that emits the suspicious aroma of a screenplay - and has coaxed some impressive work from her actors. In a disturbingly convincing performance, Matt Rapport plays Bobby, a young man from a troubled home who has developed a taste for relieving people of their limbs. We meet Bobby in the first scene, in which he and his dad (Phil Fiorini) have barricaded themselves in their house. Outside an angry crowd has gathered and police implore Bobby through bullhorns to give up. The first person to get to him, however, is Parker (Terry O'Reagan), a carnivorous producer from Paramount, who scoops up exclusive rights to Bobby's story. From there the play moves forward - allowing glimpses of Bobby's trial, his growing celebrity status, talk show appearances, guest shots - and provides his bizarre, inbred family history through several flashbacks. Memorable work is turned in by Fiorini and Jan Rogge as Bobby's parents and Nancy Marcy as his very odd grandmother. Rick Truman does impressive duty in multiple roles, most memorably as an unctuous talk-show host and as Bobby's grandfather. Celia Grinwald, in a vivid local debut, is strangely seductive and a little scary as the ill-fated Flavia, a Romanian house guest with whom Bobby, in his way, falls in love. Daniel Ruch brings serviceable efficiency to several minor roles, and O'Reagan, although sometimes very funny, ultimately comes across as unrelentingly shrill. Jarrett Bertoncin's vertigo-inducing scenic design has the appropriate look of an oversized padded cell and is atmospherically lighted by Victor En Yu Tan. Indeed, there is plenty of good work here. And Simonian's ability to write is hardly in question. But the playwright sells himself and his audience short by making easy choices. Here he is satisfied with creating reprehensible characters - or, to be precise, caricatures - and then snickering at them. The result is a play that too often seems meanspirited and self-indulgent. On stage``Arms and Legs'' by Ron Simonian runs through Nov. 12 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3820 Main St. Call 531-7529. The Kansas City Star Date: November 3, 1995 Page: 17 Copyright 1995, 1996 The Kansas City Star Co.