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Marsha Mason on Neil Simon, young actors, and what’s wrong with theatre

February 17, 2010

Four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason (Cinderella Liberty, The Goodbye Girl, Chapter Two, Only When I Laugh) appears this week in the LA Theatre Works production of Neil Simon’s California Suite. She stars with Bruce Davison, Dennis Boutsikaris, and Amy Pietz in five productions, recorded before live audiences, for later broadcast on radio stations across the country, including 89.3 KPCC in Pasadena, where you can hear parts of this interview.

We had lunch during a rehearsal break on Monday, soaking up some Skirball Center sunshine and Chinese chicken salad. Her farm in New Mexico, I learned, is up for sale. “Sixteen years of entrepreneurship,” she said. “It’s time I get back East.”

I had to ask her the most obvious question first: You and Neil Simon go back decades, married, divorced, acted in his movies, and now you’re doing another one of his plays. What has that connection meant to you all these years?

“It’s been very positive,” she told me, “professionally and personally, and it’s wonderful to do his material. I think what’s really interesting, when we first got married, he didn’t think I could do his material because he didn’t think my rhythms were good. And then, finally, when Richard Dreyfus and I did Prisoner on 2nd Avenue in London he came to see it and said ‘I was mistaken! It’s great!’”

Actors respond differently when faced with forced changes in rhythm, pacing, and delivery. I asked for an example of a change she had to make in Prisoner. “I knew immediately that the character would talk faster, so that was the key,” Mason said. “And as far as timing is concerned, you can’t really describe it. Some people think you can’t learn that – you either have it or you don’t. But I think it’s your own unique sense of timing that’s funny, because, I remember in ‘Chapter Two’, Annie Wedgeworth (1978 Tony for Best Supporting Actress), who has a kind of Texas, slower drawl, managed to get all the laughs because she had a very good sense of timing in her own rhythm.”

Mason says her mentor as a young actress was Bill Ball at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. “Quite honestly, that repertory company really was one of the most remarkable experiences, and it’s a shame that we really don’t have that opportunity in the United States compared to, for example, London with the Royal Shakespeare.” Mason became the ingénue, performing five plays in a season. “I did everything from Hedda Gabler to Roxanne in Cyrano to Abigail in The Crucible to Alice in You Can’t Take It With You… and so you really get your chops honed.”

She’s taught acting technique at various universities, including Carnegie Mellon. Lately, however, she’s seen something that deflates her. “Young actors are being told that they have to market themselves or package themselves [as dramatic or comedic, for example], so … people are thinking with less complexity. I think that’s a real disappointment and shame, that they’re being pigeonholed early on.”

I began this blog last month to answer two questions: how well does the public know our local theatres, and is theatre dying? Mason shared her opinion on why theatre struggles in Los Angeles. First, theatre isn’t ‘geographically centered’ in LA or San Francisco the way it is in New York and Chicago. “No, it’s just too big and sprawled out here,” she said. “And does Los Angeles support local theatre?” It was mostly a rhetorical question she posed.  Arts money is drying up in California. “Chicago,” Mason said, “supports something like 26 theatres of all shapes and sizes, but I don’t think it’s going away, even here in LA. I often hear conversations about that. But it is worrisome that in New York, tickets are $126 for a straight play.” And that, she says, cannot be sustained.  “What I think truly has to happen is there has to be a meeting of the minds with the unions, all of them. There’s something not squared away correctly about it. And somebody with real vision, a creative heavyweight, has to be able to bring these elements together and have some serious thinking done about it.  You’re talking about a $500 night for a family.”

Getting back to Neil Simon, I asked Marsha Mason about her present relationship with her ex-husband, who turns 83 on July 4. They’ve remained on good terms. “That’s the wonderful thing about it. I’m very close to my step-daughters and my grandchildren now. Neil is very happily married now to Elaine [Joyce] and she does a terrific job taking really good care of him, so it’s nice to be friends and continue a professional relationship.” 

Marsha Mason appears this week in Neil Simon’s California Suite at the Skirball Center. For details, visit LA Theatre Works.

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