Let’s get some stage business out of the way right away: The “Ass” in the title of Ellen Simon’s play isn’t a character based on her famous father, Neil Simon.
“It is reflective of aspects of my relationship with him, but the artist in this is really more of a Picasso guy,” she says. Her character, a famous sculptor, “has an enormous ego, and my father wasn’t like that.”
That would be a simplistic reading of this layered family comedy, which draws upon the idea of synecdoche, how parts can represent the whole in art and in families. “Ass” is receiving a staged reading as part of Pioneer Theatre Company’s Play-by-Play development series on Friday and Saturday.
The story revolves around a genius artist and his relationships with his ninth wife and his son and daughter-in-law. It’s a story about creativity and ego and celebrity and family, set in a loft anchored by a huge alabaster stone out of which a derriere is being carved.
“The flavor of the difficulty in their communication is reflective of me and my dad,” says Simon, who made her own way in Hollywood, writing for TV’s “thirtysomething,” as well as screenplays for movies such as “One Fine Day” and “Moonlight and Valentino.” “We had a difficult time, but it takes two. It took me a long time to realize that.”
Utah audiences, even those who aren’t related to creative geniuses, might relate to the play’s exploration of complicated family dynamics, as well as questions of legacy. PTC Artistic Director Karen Azenberg jokes that the idea of a ninth wife might suggest something different for some Salt Lake City theatergoers.
Ironically, Utah might be an especially good place to develop a second generation of Simon stories, as Cedar City hosts the country’s only theater festival dedicated to Neil Simon’s work, now in its 16th year. The playwright is considered the comedic bard of New York. He’s noted for his more than 30 plays and screenplays, ranging from 1963’s “Barefoot in the Park” and 1969’s “The Odd Couple” to 1991’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lost in Yonkers.”
“He wrote about his family all the time, with no apology,” Ellen Simon says. “I grew up in that household. I learned that was OK. You take from life and you make art.”
As for “Ass,” Simon admits it’s a blunt title, already causing wrinkles in publicizing the reading on Facebook and in newspaper headlines.
But the word offers so many layers of literal and figurative meanings, “I couldn’t think of anything better and nothing else seemed to fit better,” the playwright says. “The stone is center stage, and into the stone is being carved somebody’s ass, and the artist’s wife is convinced it’s hers, because she needs it to be hers, because that will make her whole. And then there’s the question of who in this family is the ass, and truly they all are.”
Adding another dimension to this developmental reading is that it’s directed by her longtime friend. Azenberg’s father, Manny Azenberg, is a Broadway legend who produced Neil Simon’s plays for more than three decades.
As girls, “we would go to opening nights together in our dresses,” Ellen Simon says of Karen Azenberg. Both went on to break into theater as dancers and choreographers.
Theater people who read Playbill credits might be fascinated by the idea of seeing another generation of Azenbergs and Simons on the same stage. Their shared history helped them shorthand conversations about the play. “I think that’s another thing we share, that second-generation thing,” Azenberg says.
The play is ready for an audience, Azenberg says, because of the sophisticated work that Simon has done in considering family dynamics.
“It’s a play by Ellen Simon. Period,” Azenberg says. “She’s a writer. She has a voice. She’s very skilled, her rewrites are terrific, and she’s unafraid of them.”
Ellen Simon’s play is part of Pioneer Theatre Company’s Play-by-Play development series.
When • April 20 and 21, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday matinee at 2 p.m., followed by a talkback discussion
Where • Utah Museum of Fine Arts Dumke Auditorium, University of Utah campus; free parking available in lots to the east of the museum
Tickets • $10; $5 for PTC subscribers and students, at 801-581-6961 or at the door