With a title that’s memorable, to-the-point and a little bit cheeky (sorry), Pioneer Theatre Company‘s Ass is designed to grab your attention. Though the in-your-face title reminds you that you’re definitely not seeing Frozen (which is now playing downtown at Eccles Theatre BTW), Ellen Simon’s world premiere is not needlessly provocative, or even particularly crude. Instead, it’s a gently funny family drama that explores the difficulties of living in the shadow of genius.
Jule (T. Ryder Smith) is a New York City sculptor known for his evocative depictions of single body parts (a big toe here, an ear there.) He is widely lauded as a genius, and he has the ego to match. He also has a strained relationship with his son Will (Ben Cherry), an art history professor who pointedly avoids studying the contemporary work his father creates. Will nervously travels to his father’s New York apartment with his bubbly wife Ana (Elizabeth Ramos) hoping to ask for financial help. The couple visits as Jule’s health is failing—while he waits for a kidney donation, he spends hours a week in dialysis with nurse Ray, (Vince McGill) who is refreshingly immune to Jule’s self-important posturing. As Jule struggles through treatment, his much younger ninth wife Tory (Laura J. Hall) obsessively monitors his health and finances as Jule slowly creates what may be his final work, a large alabaster sculpture of Tory’s ass.
Playwright Ellen Simon took inspiration from her relationship with her famous, brilliant father, the playwright Neil Simon. Without writing a literal memoir, Simon draws from often painful situations and emotions that clearly draw from her own life. This personal history is both intriguing and, from a creative standpoint, risky. In a narrative with significant parallels to her own life, Simon’s writing could have easily come across as navel-gazing, especially considering dysfunctional families and difficult artists are not exactly unique subject matter. Luckily, Simon avoids these potential pitfalls. She is a sharp writer, with an ear for unforced dialogue that balances humor and emotional resonance. Though Will appears to be the most direct stand-in for Simon, I never felt that she wanted to settle scores or stack the deck. She writes each member of this messed-up family with nuance—their motivations are transparent and human, even if they aren’t always exactly sympathetic. You probably don’t know what it’s like to live in the shadow of a father with sculptures in the MOMA, but the feelings of jealousy and betrayal that Will feels are relatable to pretty much anyone.
As the play’s most important character, Smith gives one of the best performances I’ve seen onstage in a long time. You know that he’s, well, an ass, but crucially, his charm and magnetism shine through too. It’s clear why the other characters can’t resist his gravitational pull—he has an easy chemistry with the other cast members that makes his obliviousness, and occasional outright cruelty, genuinely sting. Smith seems to relish the opportunity to play with the haughty persona of a capital-G Great Artist, and Simon subtly questions a culture that allows the powerful and famous to behave badly without impunity. (Jule is a womanizer with a taste for younger wives, but he is not an abuser or harasser. Still, the play’s exploration of great art made by much less great men feels especially relevant to modern debates about #MeToo and cancel culture.)
While Smith is a clear highlight, the entire cast gives wonderful performances. Led by director Karen Azenberg, who understands the play’s intimate scale, the cast keeps their work natural and human-scaled. The two women stand out in parts that easily could have faded into the background. Ramos is a warm, charming presence whose character has the unenviable task of tiptoeing around her in-laws from hell. Hall has fun with her role as a tightly wound WASP (or, as I couldn’t help whispering to my friend, a gaslight gatekeep girlboss) who Will derisively calls “number nine.” By the end of Ass she may be the least likable character, and Hall leans into her character’s narrow-minded desperation with dark humor and surprising physical comedy. As Jule’s most frequent victim, Cherry portrays the mixture of resentment and (usually unrequited) affection he feels toward his father. Jule is certainly not wrong to describe Will as “needy,” but I also rooted for him as he tried to break through the family’s dysfunction.
The play is less compelling when it moves away from the claustrophobic family dynamic. Ray, Jule’s nurse, is the play’s weakest character, though this is no fault of McGill, who gives a strong performance. The relationship between Ray and Jule becomes one of the most important in the play, but despite the actors’ best efforts, it never is clear exactly why these two characters have a strong impact on each other. Buried somewhere in their relationship is an interesting observation—Jule can only be emotionally intimate with Ray because there’s a clear power dynamic that he can control. Unfortunately, Ray is too thinly written for the friendship to register, and when Ray interacts with the rest of the family in the second act, he feels like a one-dimensional source of wisdom while the other characters are allowed more complexity.
Still, you shouldn’t miss this sharply observed, intimate comedy. Though Simon’s writing has a cynical streak, especially in the tartly funny first act, Ass is sentimental at its core. Even when the characters act selfishly, she never loses sight of their genuine desire for connection and the love, as messed up as it is, that binds them together.