'ARMS AND LEGS,' VIOLENCE AND THE MEDIA - RON SIMONIAN'S PLAY AT UNICORN THEATRE WAS INSPIRED BY REAL CASES.
October 27, 1995 By ROBERT TRUSSELL Publication: The Kansas City Star
And so the strange trip of Ron Simonian continues. Between rehearsals of a new play, weekend performances as unctuous club-owner Vinnie Black in ``Tony n' Tina's Wedding'' and negotiating by telephone with New York producers interested in his work, Simonian said he usually gets home by midnight. Then he sits down and writes for three hours, goes to bed and is up again at 7 a.m.Part of the busy schedule is dictated by the newest member of the Simonian home. Two months ago the playwright and his wife, Ann Simonian, became parents. Simonian figures the little guy might be an actor because he needs so much attention. ``He's actually helped with the writing because I have to be on a schedule,'' Simonian said. ``I know I'll sit down at the computer and write every night from midnight to 3 a.m.''Tonight the Unicorn Theatre unveils ``Arms and Legs,'' Simonian's darkly comic examination of violence and the way the media exploits it. Simonian plans to be there (he's taking the night off as Vinnie Black). With any luck this world premiere may be the first step in a pattern Simonian experienced with an earlier play, ``Thanatos. '' That play enjoyed a limited run last year in New York after being staged at the Unicorn. Now Gotham producers have expressed interest in ``Arms and Legs'' and are making noises about a possible offBroadway production next spring. Like ``Thanatos,'' his new play takes a look at American attitudes about violence. And, like ``Thanatos,'' Simonian figures ``Arms and Legs'' will probably offend some viewers. ``Basically this play evolved in my head from when I was watching the Menendez stuff on TV,'' he said. ``I'm watching trial excerpts and then all of a sudden there's a commercial for a movie about them.The trial wasn't even done yet and they're showing these kids with shotguns in the living room.'' The Menendez brothers were accused of murdering their parents, but juries in separate trials were unable to reach verdicts. The brothers contended they shot their parents in self-defense after years of abuse. A second trial is now under way in Los Angeles - this time without TV cameras. The ad for the TV movie, Simonian recalled, was designed to elicit sympathy for the brothers, ``these poor kids who had to kill their parents.'' He sat down and began writing. What resulted is a play about Bobby, a young man accused of reprehensible crimes, whose story attracts the interest of Hollywood. The main issues reverberated all through the O.J. Simpson trial, as one after another of the jurors, associates, friends and relatives - and Simpson himself - sought the limelight and signed book deals. Movies are surely to come. ``It's apparent he's committed some pretty horrible crimes, something of a serial-killer nature,'' Simonian said of his main character. ``The method by which he does it is part of the play, why he does it is part of the story. But the media become involved through a producer from Paramount Pictures, who I kind of patterned after ... a producer I met with about 'Thanatos,' who was a real shark ... ``The whole thing deals with crime and the media and who is basically responsible for what we see.'' Simonian said he turned out new drafts during the Simpson trial and has rewritten the play further, tailoring it in some ways to the Unicorn cast and following the suggestions of director Julie Nessen. ``There is a danger of taking the satire and trying to heighten it by creating a cartoon onstage,'' said Nessen, a veteran of New York theater making her Kansas City debut. ``So what we're looking at is tremendously difficult, because of the nature of this family and ... their inherent cruelty and their lack of sensitivity to the world around them, we need to create people who are as realistic as possible so the language can work.'' The cast includes Matt Rapport, Phil Fiorini, Jan Rogge, Nancy Marcy and Terry O'Reagan. Rapport and Fiorini have each appeared in previous productions of Simonian plays. ``This is a tremendously intelligent cast,'' Nessen said, addingthat their challenge - and hers - is to elucidate a script that consists of 23 short scenes and moves back and forth in time. ``It's like directing 23 plays,'' she said. ``It's enormously difficult because it's not as if you're going into a scene where you have half an hour to find the through-line. You've got two minutes to find a beginning, a middle and an end and ... create an entire character's life and family life. ``Ron sets up some things physically that are exceedingly difficult.'' As the production approached and the Simpson trial wound down, Simonian said he and Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn's producing artistic director, couldn't help wondering whether a guilty verdict would subvert the play's topicality. ``We all really got sucked into this thing and I'm the biggest offender of all,'' Simonian said. ``I watched, I'd say, 99 percent of the O.J. trial. I loved it. It was the biggest education I've ever had. I hated what had to happen for it to take place but I learned a lot about what our country's system of justice is based on.'' In the end, though, Simonian said the play seems destined to retain its relevance for a very long time. ``Just like with 'Thanatos,' there's always going to be something to make this play topical,'' he said. ``It would be great if this play was never topical again. The sad thing is, I have a feeling it will be topical for quite some time. It would take about 10 minutes to rewrite it every month and put a little more of the truth into it. '' The Kansas City Star Date: October 27, 1995 Page: 18 Copyright 1995, 1996 The Kansas City Star Co.