Actress Marsha Mason on Neil Simon, young actors, state of theater

Marsha Mason records in front of a live audience for L.A. Theatre Works' radio theater series.
Marsha Mason records in front of a live audience for L.A. Theatre Works' radio theater series.
Photo courtesy of L.A. Theatre Works

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Playwright Neil Simon wrote California Suite in 1976. He examined the lives of four couples who stay, at different times, in the same suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. When he wrote it, Simon was three years into his marriage with actress Marsha Mason. He was happy - but he didn’t want her anywhere near his plays.

"When we first got married, he didn’t think I could do his material because he didn’t think my rhythms were good," said Mason. "And then, finally, when Richard Dreyfus and I did 'Prisoner on 2nd Avenue' in London, he came to see it and he said 'I was mistaken! You were great!' So I’ve always enjoyed doing his material because it does require a slightly different rhythm and there is a definite style and rhythm to it, so that is a terrific challenge."

The couple lost its rhythm, and divorced in 1981. But Mason and Simon continued a personal and professional relationship. She starred in Simon’s "Max Dugan Returns" just two years after their divorce. That affection hasn’t changed, and this week Mason is starring in "California Suite," an L.A. Theatre Works production. Mason honed her chops in the Bay Area, before she garnered three Academy Award nominations for Best Actress.

"I was fortunate enough to be part of a repertory company called American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco under Bill Ball," said Mason. "Quite honestly, that 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, in London with the Royal Shakespeare and the National.

"But we did pure repertory, so it was a big company. We had journeymen, we had leading actresses, I was the ingenue. We did five plays in a season 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 when you have to do that."

Marsha Mason won’t pigeonhole herself as a dramatic or comedic actress. In recent years she’s taught at universities including Carnegie Mellon, and she worries about the career advice many young actors hear these days.

"The kids are being told that they have to market themselves or package themselves," said Mason, "and so I think what’s happening is there’s been this kind of decline, really, in terms of what a person is suited for, and people are thinking with less complexity. I belong to an older generation that didn’t have to do that, and now the kids are all having to do it. I think it’s not right."

Mason is more of a New York theater actress and knows the theater scene there better than Los Angeles. But when she sees tickets for straight plays selling for $126 each in New York, Chicago or L.A., she believes the system is broken.

"What I think truly has to happen is there has to be a meeting of the minds with the unions, all of them," said Mason. "There’s something not squared away correctly about it. And somebody with real vision, a creative heavyweight has to be able to know how to bring these elements together and have some serious thinking done about it. You’re talking about a $500 night for a family."

Unsustainable, she says. Unlike her 16-year stay in New Mexico (she’s about to move somewhere back east) – and her feelings of friendship and respect for her ex-husband Neil Simon, who tied the knot with actress Elaine Joyce more than 10 years ago.

"Yes. That’s the wonderful thing about it," said Mason. "I’m very close to my stepdaughters and my grandchildren now. Neil is very happily married now to Elaine and she does a terrific job taking really good care of him, so it’s nice to be friends and continue a professional relationship."

"California Suite" opens tonight for five performances at the Skirball Cultural Center. L.A. Theatre Works records the shows for later radio broadcast. Marsha Mason stars with Bruce Davison and Amy Pietz. More information’s available at LATW.org.