Utah Arts Review »Blog Archive» Ellen Simon paints witty portrait of family conflict in Pioneer Theatre’s ‘Ass’
“Narcissism is the birthright of genius,” proclaims world famous sculptor Jule Waterman towards the end of Ellen Simon’s comedy Ass, which had its pandemic-delayed world premiere on Friday night at the Pioneer Memorial Theater.
And Simon, herself the daughter of an artistic genius, the late playwright Neil Simon, makes some pointed observations about how we deliver the creative and the famous.
But deep down, it’s a play about family and connection.
“The details have nothing to do with my family,” Simon explained in an interview before the show opened, “but when you sit down and watch you’ll get a little bit of what it was like to do. ‘to be in my family. ”
And indeed, parent-child interactions in Ass, while hilariously elated, are likely to feel at least somewhat familiar to anyone who sees the show.
World-renowned sculptor Jule Waterman, like the on-going alabaster work that dominates Jo Winiarski’s set design, is larger than life, and T. Ryder Smith revels in the artist’s extravagant ego. “I am deeply moved by my own genius,” he exults, explaining the inspiration behind his next masterpiece. Jule specializes in three-dimensional synecdochism, sculpting individual body parts – an ear, a big toe, a neck – so masterfully that viewers can see the whole person.
But Jule’s son Will doesn’t feel fully seen, though parts of his body are immortalized in two of the world’s finest art museums. A financial emergency brings Will to his childhood home, but it quickly becomes clear that money is the least he needs from his father.
Ben Cherry, last seen on PTC as an arrogant reporter at The lifespan of a fact, skillfully reveals Will’s insecurity and resentment layer by layer, so that even when the character reaches a peak of improbability, we are invested enough to forgive him.
Elizabeth Ramos plays Will’s wife Ana, who sees him as a whole person and helps audiences do the same. His role is less conspicuous, but Ramos invests him warmly.
Vince McGill also brings an emotional weight to Ray, Jule’s well-grounded dialysis nurse, who pushes Jule and Will to open up. Laura J. Hall plays Jule’s wife Tory with such verve that she’s a pleasure to watch despite the character’s astounding lack of self-awareness.
The rhythm occasionally slackens as the characters pull off tiny epiphanies and moments of soul-searching, though Karen Azenberg’s direction is at its best when the joke flies.
Simon’s witty script never feels embarrassed or sitcommy. this is a genuinely fun play in which all the jokes and lines organically flow from the characters. Almost all of these people behave in a way that’s befitting the title of the show at some point (although none of them could outdo the audience member who took a phone call on Friday’s premiere. evening).
But they also reveal a humanity that makes them likable or, in Tory’s case, almost likeable.
The production will run through November 6 at the Roy W. and Elizabeth E. Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theater; 801-581-6961 or Pioneertheatre.org