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May 2, 2006   By ROBERT TRUSSELL    Publication: Kansas City Star

An irresolute husband on an Internet-driven spiritual quest. An oldest son fighting for alpha-male supremacy. A daughter with a go-go lifestyle. A hapless younger son fighting to be heard. And a neglected, unseen mother, all but forgotten in a family-wide whirlwind of narcissism. While these elements could easily have become the basis for a tortured family drama in the tradition of Eugene O'Neill, they form the foundation of "Next of Kin," a unique comedy by Kansas City playwright Ron Simonian. Those who have seen Simonian's work through the years know that there are two kinds of Simonian plays: Those that try too hard and those that seem like a breath of fresh air. The Unicorn Theatre's world premiere production of "Kin" clearly falls in the latter category.To call this piece a dark comedy is an understatement, but with director Mark Robbins and an exceptional cast tapping into Simonian's decidedly weird sense of humor, the play reflects most of the playwright's gifts and few of his weaknesses.Think family drama in the alternative universe: Three adult siblings gather to celebrate their mother's birthday, only to discover her mummified remains in the living room. She has been dead for three years, neglected by her kids and her ex-husband alike, leaving little beyond an answering machine filled with three years' worth of perfunctory holiday greetings. What follows is two hours of quirky family conflict as they try to make sense out of the unthinkable.Simonian has little interest in a straight narrative line, and here he jumps about in time, always in interesting ways. Our focus shifts repeatedly between events happening "now," those occurring "five days ago" and others that took place years earlier. Simonian stitches them together with impressive clarity and in the process creates a memorable collection of compelling characters.Veteran actor Jim Birdsall, making one of his all-too rare stage appearances, tends to dominate the proceedings with an inspired performance as Mark, the father who tries repeatedly to rationalize his distinctly unsavory marital infidelities and a propensity for changing religions the way the rest of us change shirts. Birdsall manages a neat trick in this show: No matter how absurd his character's behavior becomes, the performance somehow remains grounded in reality. How he does it, I can't say. Chalk it up as another mystery of the theater.As the eldest son, Dan Barnett registers a performance memorable for its clarity, although there are moments, unaccountably, when he seems to be channeling Steven Van Zandt on "The Sopranos." It has something to do with his exaggerated lip movements. Karen Errington is on-point as the sister who can never quite get her head around the madness of the situation. And Brian Paulette delivers a sharply delineated turn as the youngest son. Appearing in the second act as a most unusual undertaker is Sarah Crawford, who turns in her most vivid work in years.Simonian is very good when depicting group dynamics, and much of the show's immediacy comes from his detailed depiction of the ebb and flow of family politics. In this play he demonstrates a level of craftsmanship we haven't seen before, both in terms of his character work and his handling of plot. This comedy is by turns bawdy, witty and, in its own bizarre way, compassionate. "Next of Kin" may not be for all tastes, but that's what makes it good. The play deserves a wide audience and with a few productions around the country, it just might find one.To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic and arts reporter, call (816) 234-4765 or send e-mail to'Next of Kin'Reviewed: Friday, April 28 (runs through May 21)Where: Unicorn TheatreAttendance: 140 (approx.)Tickets: $15-$25; (816) 531-7529; unicorntheatre.comPhoto (color)RICH SUGG/The Kansas City StarWhen a trio of siblings played by Dan Barnett (left), Karen Errington and Brian Paulette show up at their mother's house for a surprise gathering, they're the ones who end up surprised in the Unicorn Theatre's production of "Next of Kin." Kansas City Star, The (MO) Date: May 2, 2006 Page: E3 Copyright 2006 The Kansas City Star Co.

Your 'Kin' of play - Unicorn, Simonian put together a fractured family tale to remember: Press
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