First, there’s the title. Surprising, tongue-in-cheek, a little bit provocative, something that might make you awkwardly pause before saying it in polite conversation. Then, there’s the playwright. Ass, which makes its world premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company this week, is written by Ellen Simon. Simon was interested in writing about a dysfunctional family whose patriarch is an acclaimed sculptor on marriage number nine. She wanted to probe the dynamics of a brilliant artist and the people around him—the maelstrom of jealousy, competitiveness and hurt that arise in the shadows of fame and success. Oh, and Ellen Simon just happens to be the daughter of Neil Simon—yes that Neil Simon, one of the most well-known, prolific playwrights in the history of American theater.
So Simon knows the question is coming: what makes her so interested in writing about dysfunctional families? “Hmm, let me think,” she jokes. Unsurprisingly, knowing the play’s themes, she took inspiration from her own relationship with her famous father. “His advice to me was always ‘write what you know and make sure there’s conflict,’’ she says. “I drew on my own experience of what it’s like to grow up in a household where somebody is that famous and talented.”
Simon says she understands the strained relationships of the characters firsthand. “[My father and I] had a difficult relationship. I mean, that’s the truth of it. We didn’t know how to talk to each other as well as I think both of us probably would have liked.” As a child, she lived in a rarefied world of the theater elite—legends like Bob Fosse and Maureen Stapleton were family friends and regular dinner guests. “I’d walked down the street with my dad and the cab drivers would yell out the window, ‘thanks for all the laughs, doc,’” she remembers. This spotlight, though, came with challenges at home. “It was poignant for me … I admired him so much and I also felt a little, you know, locked out of his focus.”
Though the play is influenced by her personal life, Simon says Ass is not strictly autobiographical. For one thing, this protagonist is a sculptor, not a writer, and Simon says her character has an outsized ego that her father never did. The title isn’t meant to be a dig about any real-life person—it playfully refers to the body part of a sculpture the artist is creating. Still, Simon understands there will be curiosity about the connections between her personal life and her work. “It’s kind of an occupational hazard,” she says.
Simon has been working on Ass off-and-on for 15 years, and after pandemic delays, the play will finally receive a full production at Pioneer Theatre Company. (Simon says Ass was offered a production years ago, but she decided against it because her father, who was developing dementia, would be unable to discuss or process the work. He died in 2018.) This PTC production gives the play yet another personal connection for Simon. Karen Azenberg, the play’s director and the Artistic Director of PTC, is a childhood friend of Simon—Manny Azenberg, Karen’s father, produced many of Neil Simon’s plays on Broadway. The two collaborated in 2018 when Ass was read at PTC’s Play-By-Play series, and Simon says that she had an “easy rapport” with her longtime friend. Now, all that’s left is an audience. “I just hope people get past the title,” says Simon.