Ellen Simon chisels out a witty portrait of family conflict in Pioneer Theatre’s “Ass”

Sat Oct 23, 2021 at 1:17 pm
By Catherine Reese Newton
T Ryder Smith, Laura J. Hall and Ben Cherry in Ellen Simon’s Ass, which had its world premiere Friday night at Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo: PTC

“Narcissism is the birthright of genius,” world-renowned sculptor Jule Waterman proclaims toward the end of Ellen Simon’s comedy Ass, which made its pandemic-delayed world premiere Friday night at Pioneer Memorial Theatre. 

And Simon—herself the daughter of an artistic genius, the late playwright Neil Simon—does make some sharp observations about the ways in which we indulge the creative and famous.

But at bottom, this is a play about family and connection.

“The specifics have nothing to do with my family,” Simon explained in an interview ahead of the show’s opening, “but when you sit and watch, you will get a little bit of what it felt like to be in my family.” 

And indeed, the parent-child interactions in Ass, though hilariously heightened, are likely to feel at least somewhat familiar to anyone who sees the show.

World-renowned sculptor Jule Waterman, like the alabaster work-in-progress that dominates Jo Winiarski’s set design, is larger than life, and T. Ryder Smith luxuriates in the artist’s extravagant ego. “I am shaken to the core by my own brilliance,” he exults as he explains the inspiration behind his forthcoming masterpiece. Jule specializes in three-dimensional synecdoche, sculpting single body parts—an ear, a big toe, a neck—so masterfully that viewers can see the whole person.

But Jule’s son, Will, doesn’t feel wholly seen, despite having parts of his body immortalized in two of the world’s finest art museums. A financial emergency brings Will to his childhood home, but it quickly becomes clear that money is the least of the things he needs from his father. 

Ben Cherry, last seen at PTC as an arrogant journalist in The Lifespan of a Fact, deftly reveals Will’s insecurity and resentment layer by layer, so that even when the character reaches peak unlikeability, we’re invested enough to forgive him.

Elizabeth Ramos plays Ana, Will’s wife, who does see him as a whole person and helps the audience to do the same. Her role is a less showy one, but Ramos invests it with warmth. 

Vince McGill likewise brings emotional weight to Ray, Jule’s well-grounded dialysis nurse, who pushes Jule and Will to open up. Laura J. Hall plays Jule’s grasping trophy wife, Tory, with such verve that she’s a delight to watch despite the character’s breathtaking lack of self-awareness.

The pace relaxes occasionally as the characters achieve tiny epiphanies and moments of self-reflection, though Karen Azenberg’s direction is at its best when the banter is flying. 

Simon’s witty script never feels self-conscious or sitcommy. this is a genuinely funny play in which all the jokes and one-liners arise organically from the characters. Almost all of these people behave in ways befitting the show’s title at some point (though none of them can outdo the audience member who took a phone call during Friday night’s premiere).

But they also reveal a humanity that renders them likable—or, in Tory’s case, almost likable.

The production runs through November 6 at the Roy W. and Elizabeth E. Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre; 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org

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