As Ellen Simon recalls meeting her longtime friend Karen Azenberg, “we must have met at the first opening night when my dad worked with her dad.”
That would have been the 1972 opening of “The Sunshine Boys,” written by Ellen’s dad, the playwright Neil Simon, and produced by Karen’s dad, Manny Azenberg — whose collaboration ran for decades.
Their meeting might have been even earlier, Karen Azenberg said. “We were pre-teenagers,” she said. “In those first years, it was that our dads were friends, so we found ourselves together.”
Manny Azenberg once told Playbill, the theater publication, that he met Neil Simon in 1963, nine years before “The Sunshine Boys” premiered, playing theater-league softball. Azenberg played shortstop, Simon was covering second. The first baseman was a ringer, a college athlete-turned-actor who was the male lead in Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park”: Robert Redford.
The friendship between the daughters has endured, and they’re back together this month in Salt Lake City. Karen Azenberg, the artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company, and is directing Ellen Simon’s long-gestating and provocatively titled play, “Ass,” which will have its world premiere run at PTC, Oct. 22-Nov. 6.
‘A woman’s voice’
The play is a mix of comedy and drama, about strained family ties and the question of whether great art outweighs the artist’s bad behavior. At the center is Jule Waterman, a famous sculptor in failing health, who is creating what might be his last major work — prominently featuring the titular body part — while also dealing with Tory, his ninth wife, and his underachieving adult son, Will.
“The son in this play is desperate for his father’s attention,” Simon said. That’s one aspect of the story that mirrors her own life. “I was always trying to get [my dad’s] attention, trying to be seen by him. … Growing up as Neil’s daughter, I didn’t have an easy time of it.”
The sculptor, she added, “is so different in every single way from my dad, except for his position in the world. The character is even at a more elevated position than my dad. Or at least he thinks himself so. … Visual artists tend to be sort of very showy and big.”
On the other hand, “My dad was way more humble, and very introspective,” she said. “My dad was just a quiet, shy family guy who was really introverted and into his own work, and spent so much time in his own head.”
Azenberg has noted the autobiographical bent of the play. “I know there are parts of the play that are out of her real-life conversations, but it isn’t for me to say which ones,” Azenberg said. “Like her dad, she takes the life experience, and then goes away from it, heightens it.”
Simon, Azenberg said, inherited many skills from her dad. “Her ability to rewrite — somebody’s got to get that gene out of the Simon line, because it’s genius,” Azenberg said.
Also, Azenberg said, “there’s a rhythm — it’s not the same rhythm, but there is a rhythm to the words and the lines and the scenes, and the way it plays, to get you to the joke, or to get you to the moment of [gasps] emotion.”
What’s different about Ellen Simon’s writing, compared to Neil Simon’s, is her voice, Azenberg said. “It’s a woman’s voice. It’s a little more contemporary. And there’s an ability to immediately go to what is the drama narrative, as opposed to the comic narrative.”
In comparing writing styles with her dad (who died in 2018), Simon said, “I might be a tad darker. I’m going to risk everything saying this: I might be a little less rose-colored in approach. Things don’t wind up in a good way all the time. Resolution isn’t necessary for me as a writer.”
“Ass,” Simon said, “really walks the line between realism and buh-dum-bump comedy. It needs the timing that I learned growing up with my dad, and watching his plays come to life. But I also tried to make it really poignant and really honest, brutally honest, about what it feels like — what does it mean — to be the progeny of somebody like that?”
Shifting to the ‘90s
Simon said she has been working on “Ass” for 15 years. In 2018, she workshopped it at PTC’s “Play-by-Play” reading series. The play was set to premiere at PTC in late March 2020 — until the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down.
Simon spent months at home. “I live practically off the grid, in Connecticut in the woods, with my daughters,” she said. “So we watched the animals, and I tried to write a number of different projects.”
Trying to write during the pandemic, the social unrest following the death of George Floyd, and a contentious election was a challenge. “I had problems connecting, and knowing what feels right for this moment, right?” she said. “Our attention has been focused so much on so many gigantic, huge issues that seem unapproachable or unfixable or devastating. They felt so biblically huge that it just didn’t feel like the right way to hold an intimate family story about ego and narcissism and bad communication.”
With those outside issues looming so large, Simon decided, in “a shift I had to make,” to rewrite “Ass” as a period piece, set in 1990.
Azenberg said Simon was contemplating the time change before the production’s 19-month postponement.
“What was important was we hold onto the story of family and relationships,” Azenberg said. The social awakening of 2020, Azenberg said, “is not the topic of the play. … So how do you navigate it in today, without dismissing it and pretending the last 18 months haven’t happened?”
Simon said that when she started writing “Ass” 15 years ago, “I felt at that moment that it was weird to do a memory play that didn’t have a good enough justification or context about why to set it 15 years prior. Now, I can set it 30 years prior, around the Berlin Wall coming down, and the early ‘90s.”
The ‘90s, she said, “was a quieter, simpler time. There’s no internet back then. There’s more urgency to the personal communication. What happens in the room is more alive, I think, in that era.”
‘We’re in this together’
Simon said she’s been given opportunities to premiere “Ass” in New York, but she stuck with PTC so she could work with Azenberg to get it just right.
“She’ll look at me, and I’ll know that she’s going to fix what she knew that I hated. And vice versa,” Simon said. “We almost don’t need to speak. … It’s not just invaluable, it’s — I don’t know how to say it — it’s magical.”
Azenberg said that during rehearsals, “we’ll sit there, and sometimes we’ll just look, and she’s like, ‘I know,’ and she makes a little ‘X’ [in the script]. Or I’ll just circle one word, and she just whispers, ‘I heard it,’ and the next day she’ll come back with another line. …
“There’s an inherent trust that I’m not in this for myself, we’re in this together,” Azenberg continued. “I can say something to her about a line, or a scene, or a moment, and she doesn’t have to at any point go to a defensive point about it. It’s a conversation between two people who not only have this history and know each other, but have a trust about the work. And it’s about getting to the best of the work.”
Azenberg sees in her working relationship with Simon a connection to their fathers. “I think this is how our dads worked,” Azenberg said. “They had this ability to have these candid conversations. And it was always OK, because it was about the work. And I think somehow that has passed down to us.”
Their friendship started because of proximity, Azenberg said. “You get brought to all of those opening-night events. And when you’re 12, you’re probably one of only two 12-year-olds at a thing like that,” she said.
As the two got older, each took an interest in dance and choreography. Simon said that when she performed at Jacob’s Pillow, the renowned dance retreat and festival in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, Azenberg and her dad attended — and Simon was in the audience when Azenberg performed there. (That history will repeat itself: Manny Azenberg, who’s 87, is planning to attend a performance of “Ass” during its Salt Lake City run, his daughter said.)
While their interest in dance and theater grew, Azenberg said, her sister, Lisa, and Ellen’s sister, Nancy, were tennis players. “There were these continuing parallels between the two families that were funny and odd,” she said.
Because of their friendship — and living, as they put it, as “two Jewish girls” whose fathers both worked on Broadway — “we share a life history that no one really can,” Azenberg said.
The households were separate, Simon said, but equally intense.
“When [our dads] came together, and Manny and Neil put on shows with, like, George C. Scott — or all the huge actors with their personalities who came around — we were little girls watching,” she said. “That’s a very exciting and terrifying environment to think about.”
Some of that intensity made its way into Simon’s script for “Ass.”
“Our cast looks at us, and they’re like, ‘Some of this is mean,’” Simon said, “and we look at each other and are like, ‘No, that’s the nice part.’”
‘Ass’ at Pioneer Theatre
The world premiere performances of Ellen Simon’s play “Ass,” directed by Karen Azenberg.
When • Oct. 22 through Nov. 6.
Where • Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City — on the University of Utah campus.
Times • Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. No performances on Sundays.
Tickets • $35 and $50 on Fridays and Saturdays, $33 and $42 on Mondays through Thursdays. Go to pioneertheatre.org for information.
Advisory • The play contains strong language. Children age 5 and under will not be admitted.