The AYA chips away at this life and its cruelty, taking the great unfathomable candy bar of Everything Fucked Up and reducing it to one of those fun-sized jobs that you hand out for Halloween.
"Life is meaninglessness?" asks the audience. "Bravo!"
And then, under their breath, "You'll feel differently once you've grown up."
Ron Simonian has grown up, but he hasn't forgotten the things worth being pissed at. Next of Kin, the Kansas City playwright's first new show since 2001, smolders with all the rage and hurt that fueled him as an AYA. It's also tempered with something new: mature restraint.
Simonian's younger plays local hits in the early '90s were unstable alloys of disgust, pity and jokes. In one, staged in a garagelike space just off the Southwest Boulevard floodplain, we laughed as a put-upon life insurance agent terrified potential clients into purchasing policies. We felt for the shlub and despised him, not because he was a man of particular awfulness but because he was a man of a world that led men to be like him. (Simonian's women aren't as bad as his men.) Even before the Unicorn Theatre's Cynthia Levin tapped him for a seat at the grown-up's table, Simonian wrote work that made audiences feel more in one scene than they might in entire plays.
For some, it was too much. His dark themes, Darwinian philosophizing and insistence upon lancing taboos with jokes scared some folks; his out-of-nowhere bursts of violence gave 'em excuses to bitch.
That violence was sometimes rote but just as often essential. What landed him on the Unicorn stage (and, ultimately, off Broadway) is his exceptional scene-craft. He can sneak in a sucker-punch at any moment. His clever miscues encourage us to assume one thing while he whets something worse. And he generates true suspense as he builds from the everyday to the one-day-in-hell. I can almost forgive an unearned bloodbath if the moments anticipating it are as tense as what Simonian often achieves.
In Next of Kin, the violence is nothing to be forgiven.
One shocking act resounds throughout these characters' lives, juiced for all it's worth by director Mark Robbins. The scene is Simonian at his best: A chat that seems appealingly irrelevant turns sinister, with everything just said suddenly sharp with dual meaning. The crowd hushes at the bloody moment's approach. Some giggle, some shudder, but we all inch forward in our seats, enthralled.
The story here is bleakly inspired. Three self-involved siblings turn up at their mother's house for a surprise birthday party, only to discover the old woman's corpse moldering on the couch. Judging by the newspaper she's clutching, she's been dead for three years. While the bereaved grieve and squabble, we're treated to gripping flashbacks, a couple of smart fake-outs and a growing understanding of how this could have happened. Domineering oldest brother Don (the stellar Dan Barnett) stalks the house, picking fights with brother Joey (Brian Paulette) and sister Karen (Karen Errington) and brooding about past troubles with his father (Jim Birdsall), a hilariously affable son of a bitch who long ago abandoned his wife and is prone to statements such as "Let me start off by saying you kids are like family to me."
As Don, Joey and Karen sort through all of this, our sympathies shift back and forth and then dry up. Paulette's hangdog expressions fit the meek Joey, and we're encouraged when that actor's gifted goofiness occasionally flares up. Errington is fine as Karen, at once both dizzy-eyed and catatonic, but the best lines go to the boys, who do them justice. That's especially true of Birdsall, who, with his dimples a-twinkle and his barbs drawing blood, is a Mephistophelean joy as the long-gone father.
The Unicorn's staging is, as usual, distinguished in all aspects, with subtle sound effects ("Good crickets!" a fellow behind me said) and lighting that seems to dim in direct relation to what we're feeling. Just when we lean in closer, worried at what might come next, the shadows deepen across Atif Rome's sprawling, inventive set.
As in earlier Simonian plays, these caustic characters lament their own wretchedness. This time around, though, they get to confront the source: the father, who arrives late in the first half. These scenes are savagely funny.
Dad: "I spent the last few years contemplating suicide for my past actions."
Don: "You never were a doer."
But they're also kind of moving. Simonian has always seemed deeply involved with his characters, even when he was just fattening them for slaughter. In Next of Kin, we share this sympathy more than ever. He's more patient these days, not just showing us how rotten people are but instead exploring why they're rotten. All of which means there's good news coming out of a play as dark as this one: Even at 40, Ron Simonian is still angry.
But before that, he's an artist.