How two daughters of Broadway legends came to create a new play, titled “Ass,” at the Pioneer Theater in Utah

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As Ellen Simon recalls meeting her longtime friend Karen Azenberg, “we must have met on the first opening night when my dad was working with his dad.”

This would have been the 1972 opening of “The Sunshine Boys,” written by Ellen’s father, playwright Neil Simon, and produced by Karen’s father, Manny Azenberg – whose collaboration spanned decades.

Their meeting could have been even earlier, said Karen Azenberg. “We were pre-teens,” she said. “In those early years, it was like our fathers were friends, so we got together.”

Manny Azenberg once told Playbill, the theatrical publication, that he met Neil Simon in 1963, nine years before the premiere of “The Sunshine Boys,” playing Theater League softball. Azenberg played the shortstop, Simon covered the 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 girls has lasted and they are together again this month in Salt Lake City. Karen Azenberg, Artistic Director of the Pioneer Theater Company, and conducts the long-running and provocative Ellen Simon play, which will premiere at PTC from Oct. 22 to Nov. 6.

“A woman’s voice”

The play is a mix of comedy and drama, about strained family ties and the question of whether high art outweighs the artist’s bad behavior. At the center is Jule Waterman, a famous sculptor in poor health, who creates what could be his last major work – highlighting the titular body part – while also dealing with Tory, his ninth wife and his sub-adult son. successful, Will.

“The son in this play is desperate for his father’s attention,” Simon said. It is an aspect of the story that reflects its own life. “I was always trying to get [my dad’s] watch out, trying to be seen by him. … Growing up as Neil’s daughter, it wasn’t easy for me.

The sculptor, she added, “is so different in every way from my father, except for his position in the world. The character is even in a higher position than my father. Or at least he thinks so himself. … Visual artists tend to be sort of very showy and tall.

On the other hand, “My father was much more humble and very introspective,” she said. “My dad was just a quiet, shy family member who was really introverted and in his own job, and spent so much time in his own head.”

Azenberg noted the play’s autobiographical bent. “I know there are parts of the play that are outside of his actual conversations, but it’s not for me to say which,” Azenberg said. “Like her father, she takes the experience of life, then moves away from it, intensifies it.”

Simon, Azenberg said, inherited many skills from his father. “Its ability to rewrite – someone has to extract this gene from the Simon line, because it’s genius,” Azenberg said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Playwright Ellen Simon, left, and theater director Karen Azenberg, artistic director of the Pioneer Theater Company, visit Gilgal Gardens in Salt Lake City on October 5, 2021. The two friends – whose fathers are Broadway legends, writer Neil Simon and producer Manny Azenberg – collaborate to prepare Ellen Simon’s new play, “Ass,” for its world premiere on PTC, October 22 through November 6.

Plus, said Azenberg, “there’s a rhythm – it’s not the same rhythm, but there is a rhythm in the words and the lines and the scenes, and the way it plays out, to bring you. as a 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 is a possibility of going immediately to what the dramatic narrative is, as opposed to the comic narrative.

Comparing the writing styles with his father (who died in 2018), Simon said: “I could be a little darker. I’m going to risk everything by saying this: I might be a little less rosy as I approach. Things don’t always end the right way. Resolution is not necessary for me as a writer.

“The ass,” said Simon, “really makes the distinction between realism and buh-dum-bump comedy. It takes the timing that I learned growing up with my dad and watching his plays come to life. Also tried to make it really poignant and really honest, brutally honest, about what it feels like – what does it mean – to be the offspring of someone like that?

Go to the 90s

Simon said she had been working on “Ass” for 15 years. In 2018, she presented it in the workshop during the PTC “Play-by-Play” reading series. The piece was scheduled to premiere at PTC in late March 2020 – until the COVID-19 pandemic shuts everything down.

Simon spent months at home. “I live pretty much off the grid, in Connecticut in the woods, with my daughters,” she said. “So we observed 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 controversial election has been a challenge. “I’ve been having trouble connecting and figuring out what’s right for me right now, haven’t I? ” she said. “Our attention has been so focused on so many gigantic and enormous problems that seem unattainable or irreparable or devastating. They felt so biblically huge that it didn’t seem like the right way to tell an intimate family story about ego, narcissism, and miscommunication.

With these exterior issues looming so big, Simon decided, in “a change I had to make”, to rewrite “Ass” as a period play, set in 1990.

Azenberg said Simon is considering the time change ahead of the 19-month postponement of production.

“What was important was that we kept the family history and relationships,” Azenberg said. The social awakening of 2020, said Azenberg, “is not the subject of the play. … So how do you navigate it today, without dismissing it and pretending that the last 18 months have not happened? “

Simon said that when she started writing “Ass” 15 years ago, “I felt at that point that it was weird to make a memory game that didn’t have a rationale or a context good enough to explain why it was 15 years ago. Now I can define it 30 years before, around the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the early 90s. “

The ’90s, she said, “were a quieter and simpler time. There was no internet at the time. There is more urgency to personal communication. What is happening in the room is more alive, I think, at this time. “

“We are in the same boat”

Simon said she had the opportunity to create “Ass” in New York City, but she stayed with PTC so that she could work with Azenberg to make it all right.

“She’ll look at me and I’ll know she’s going to fix what she knew I hated.” And vice versa, ”said Simon. “We hardly need to talk. … It’s not just priceless, it’s – I don’t know how to put it – it’s magic.

(Pioneer Theater Company) The Pioneer Theater Company cast of Ellen Simon’s “Ass”: (left to right) Ben Cherry, Laura J. Hall, T. Ryder Smith, Vince McGill and Elizabeth Ramos. The actors are gathered in a studio in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Utah.

Azenberg said that during rehearsals, “we’re going to sit there, and sometimes we’re just going to watch, and she says ‘I know’ and she does a little ‘X’ [in the script]. Or I’m just going to circle a word, and she just whispers, “I heard it,” and the next day she’ll come back with another line. …

“There’s an inherent confidence that I’m not in this for myself, we’re in the same boat,” Azenberg continued. “I can tell her something about a line, a scene, or a moment, and she doesn’t have to get defensive about it at any point. It’s a conversation between two people who not only have this story and know each other, but who have confidence in the job. And it’s about getting the most out of the job.

Azenberg sees in his working relationship with Simon a link with their fathers. “I think that’s how our fathers operated,” Azenberg said. “They had this ability to have these frank conversations. And it was always OK, because it was about work. And I think somehow it gets passed on to us.

Their friendship began because of the closeness, Azenberg said. “You’re taken to all of these opening events. And when you’re 12 you’re probably one of only two 12-year-olds doing this stuff,” she said.

As the two grew older, each became interested in dancing and choreography. Simon said that when she performed at Jacob’s Pillow, the renowned Berkshires retreat and dance festival in Massachusetts, Azenberg and her father attended – and Simon was in the audience when Azenberg attended. product. (This story will repeat itself: Manny Azenberg, 87, plans to attend a performance of “Ass” during his run in Salt Lake City, his daughter said.)

As their interest in dance and acting grew, Azenberg said, her sister, Lisa, and Ellen’s sister, Nancy, were tennis players. “There were these continuing parallels between the two families which were funny and weird,” she said.

Because of their friendship – and their life, as they say, as “two Jewish girls” whose fathers both worked on Broadway – “we share a life story that no one really can,” Azenberg said.

Households were separate, Simon said, but just as intense.

“When [our dads] got together, and Manny and Neil did shows with, like, George C. Scott – or all the huge actors with their personalities that came – we were little girls watching, ”she said. “It’s a very exciting and terrifying environment to think about. “

Some of that intensity found its way into Simon’s script for “Ass”.

“Our actors are looking at us, and they’re like, ‘This is partly mean,'” said Simon, “and we look at each other and we’re like, ‘No, that’s the good part.'”

‘Ass’ at the Pioneer Theater

World premiere performances of the play “Ass” by Ellen Simon, directed by Karen Azenberg.

When • From October 22 to November 6.

Or • Pioneer Theater Company, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City – on the University of Utah campus.

Schedule • Performances take place at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, at 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays and at 7:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday. No performances on Sunday.

Tickets • $ 35 and $ 50 on Fridays and Saturdays, $ 33 and $ 42 from Monday to Thursday. Visit Pioneertheatre.org for more information.

Advice • The play contains strong language. Children 5 years old and younger will not be admitted.


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