Pioneer Theatre Company to explore family conflict in premiere of “Ass” by Ellen Simon

Wed Oct 20, 2021 at 9:17 am
By Catherine Reese Newton
Ellen Simon (with actor T. Ryder Smith) whose play Ass will have its world premiere Friday night at Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo: PTC

Karen Azenberg will be happy to have the world premiere of Ass behind her. Not because she isn’t a fan of the acerbic comedy by her lifelong friend Ellen Simon—far from it.

“When we get this show open, it will be a big piece of the missing part of what Covid stopped,” explained Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director who is also directing this production.  The company was in the middle of rehearsals and two weeks from opening, when the world shut down in March 2020.

The actors, all five of whom have returned to finish what they started, were equally eager to get Ass back on its feet, and Simon believes their performances have deepened in the meantime.

“It felt like the play was internalized,” the playwright reported the morning after the first read-through earlier this month. “I was really happy to see a striking amount of depth and nuance.”

The play is about a family forced to reconnect—a circumstance Simon suspects many theatergoers will relate to differently now than they might have a year and a half ago. “There’s a lot in the play that families will understand about being in a space together and having to accept each other and coexist,” she said.

Don’t read too much into the fact that the fictional family’s patriarch is a creative genius of international stature. “My own father was not this artist. He was his own artist,” Simon said of her father, celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Neil Simon. “He was a very loving father. But he was intimidating, and our relationship was fraught. …

“The specifics have nothing to do with my family, but when you sit and watch, you will get a little bit of what it felt like to be in my family.”

The cheeky title doesn’t refer only to the larger-than-life body part being sculpted in stone in the middle of the stage. It also evokes unpleasant personality traits and the question of whether genius can excuse bad behavior.

“It’s about the complexities of family relationships in an eccentric, unusual family,” Azenberg said. “But at its core, what drew me is much deeper than that. It’s about expectations of family relationships. What does a child expect from a parent? What does a parent expect from an adult child? Can you get what you expect if you can’t ask for it, or if you don’t know how to articulate it or give it back?”

T. Ryder Smith, Elizabeth Ramos and Ben Cherry in a rehearsal for Ass by Ellen Simon. Photo: PTC

Simon wrote her first draft of the play 16 years ago. Before that, she had specialized in romantic comedies such as the autobiographical play-turned-film “Moonlight and Valentino.” In Ass, she said, “I wanted to talk about parts vs. whole, to show how in relationships one can feel fragmented … what it’s like to be the offspring of a genius personality and what it means to feel whole.”

She gave the play to Manny Azenberg—renowned Broadway producer, close friend of Neil Simon and father of Karen Azenberg—to read, and it was on the younger Azenberg’s wish list when she came to Salt Lake City in 2012. PTC gave it a staged reading in the Play-by-Play development series in 2018. “People loved it,” Karen Azenberg said.

And now, with face masks in place until the actors take the stage, and with Actor’s Equity-mandated coronavirus testing three times a week for the cast and crew, “we are as confident as one can get” that the show will go on safely, Azenberg said. She can’t wait to see how audiences receive it.

“The world has changed in other ways” besides a global pandemic, she noted. “There has been a social reckoning. We are all different people than we were 18 months ago.”

Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of Ass opens Friday night and runs through November 6 at the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre.

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