IT'S THUMBS-UP FROM 'THE NEW YORK TIMES' FOR 'THANATOS' - POSITIVE REVIEW MAY EXTEND SHOW'S RUN, ITS KC PLAYWRIGHT SAYS.
March 26, 1995 By ROBERT TRUSSELL Publication: The Kansas City Star
NEW YORK - Ron Simonian's early attempts at playwriting were dismissed by college professors as the work of an untalented novice. Now he has received an indelible stamp of approval from The New York Times , the final arbiter of life and death in the New York theater. Writing in the March 20 edition of the Times , critic D.J.R. Bruckner praised a low-budget production of Simonian's "Thanatos," which was scheduled to close March 25 at Alice's Fourth Floor, a tiny theater on 42nd Street. Bruckner wrote that Simonian "has an acute and unforgiving ear, and if many of his story ideas are obvious his uses of them are original." The play depicts a Red Cross relief worker's descent into violence, culminating in an explosive finish - the only aspect of the play to give Bruckner pause. "There is a logical connection between the antic ideas Mr. Simonian has been playing with and the final violence," he wrote. "But he leaves the audience totally unprepared for it emotionally: It is simply bewildering. "Nonetheless, this is an impressive debut, memorably presented." The critic also lauded the cast members, writing that they "give a performance that crackles with humor, wit and eroticism until the final scene. " In the play are Richard Augustine, Phil Fiorini, R.D. Mangels, Tess Brubeck and Matthew Rapport, all of whom live in the Kansas City area or have worked here. (Augustine recently moved to Los Angeles.)And, Bruckner added, director Sidonie Garrett "has a superb sense of timing: virtually every twist in this knotted plot is a whiplash." As the review suggests, Simonian's plays rarely elicit a neutral response. People who "eat popcorn and Milk Duds and watch Schwarzenegger," he said recently in New York, react differently when the shooting and killing explodes in the same room. This from a 29-year-old writer who, judging by appearances, is among the most pleasant, soft-spoken personalities in theater. "I hate playwrights who are their work," Simonian said one afternoon in a theater-district delicatessen. "I live in De Soto, Kan. I'm just a guy. I just make sure my scripts aren't predictable and if that pulls it toward violence" Still, some people have a hard time with Simonian's plays. One viewer at a Missouri Rep reading of "Arms and Legs" called it a "violent piece of trash," Simonian recalled. A movie executive told him there was no way he could film "Thanatos" without allowing the doomed characters to live and moving the action out of the motel room in which it unfolds. Some viewers, the playwright said, take it personally when characters in "Thanatos" are killed, as though they were real people and he had pulled the trigger. "What did The New Times say? " Simonian said of the Kansas City alternative weekly. "Didn't they call it the worst play of the year? I guess it's the kind of play you love or hate." The New York Times review, appearing in the third week of a three-week run, should boost interest in the play, and co-producer Sevan Melikyan said he was studying the feasibility of extending the run because of it. "If the space is available it's a definite possibility," Melikyan said. Taking a break at the New York theater one night, Sidnoie Garrett said she was attracted to the dark side of Simonian's work. "This is a hard play," Garrett said. "You either allow yourself to find death funny or you don't. It's great if there's some humor too, but dark is what I like. "Ron taps into the whole issue of violence. I feel more surrounded by that in Kansas City than I do here." Simonian, who spent his early childhood in Huntington Beach, Calif., and his teen-age years in Johnson County, majored in theater at the University of Kansas but never graduated. His early attempts at playwriting, he said, were met with derision.The play in question, he recalled, had something to do with Elvis and the KGB. He acknowledged the possibility that it might have fallen short of high art. Fearing that he might sound bitter, he added: "I love KU and think the theater department is great; it just didn't work for me but if I ever sold a screenplay for $10 million I'd probably give a million to K-State." In light of those beginnings, Simonian said he was gratified to see his play staged successfully in New York - especially when he remembered a woman's angry response to a 1993 reading of "Thanatos" at the Unicorn Theatre. "She said, `I don't go to the theater to think about things. I go to the theater to escape and relax,' " Simonian recalled. After that Simonian made a point of picturing the woman each time he sat down to write. "I know if I can offend her every time," he said, "I won't be doing predictable and lackadaisical theater. "