Marsha Mason is a self proclaimed renaissance woman. It would be hard to disagree. After a ten year marriage to master playwright Neil Simon, four Academy Award nominations, two Golden Globe Awards, one Emmy, and a Grammy nomination, she decided that she would do some soul-searching. It led her to New Mexico, where she became a farmer and owner of her own line of homeopathic beauty products. She recently sold the farm and is pondering her next move.
Currently, she is directing Simon’s autobiographical Chapter Two at Bucks County Playhouse. (Incidentally, this historic theater is only 90 minutes outside of Manhattan and is located in the charming town of New Hope. We’ll all be complaining about the heat and congestion of a New York City summer soon, so plan your day trip now!). Last year, she starred in the Playhouse’s premiere production of Tales of the Allergist’s Wife. Later this season, she’ll be featured in one of the best stage thrillers of all time, Deathtrap.
I caught up with this beautiful and courageous soul, who spoke about directing Chapter Two (Mason starred in the original film), her co-star James Caan, and secrets to a successful life.
RL: How was the opening?
MM: The opening was great. The actors are quite wonderful. We had a talk back after the matinee on Saturday and the audience was just thrilled with the overall production so I couldn’t be happier.
RL: How did the opportunity to direct this work at Bucks County Playhouse happen?
MM: The producer, Robin Goodman (who produced Cinderella and Avenue Q on Broadway), is an old friend of mine who had known my previous directorial work. When this came up, she thought of me and I immediately said yes because I felt comfortable with her. I also appeared at Bucks County Playhouse last year, so I was familiar with the set-up.This is the first production under the new owners and is also the 75th anniversary of the playhouse, so it is quite a big deal.
RL: For audiences unfamiliar with the play, can you tell me what Chapter Two is about?
MM: It’s basically a love story. It’s about a widower who has just lost his wife and how to move forward after grieving the death of a spouse and a young woman who is coming out of a divorce. It’s about closure and grieving but is done in a wonderfully warm, funny, and humane way. It was the beginning of Neil’s writing that became deeper and perhaps more personal than just a straight comedy. I suppose if you were to put a new definition on it, you could call is a “dramedy.” It gives the audience a complete,wonderful, and mature sense of a love story.
RL: How have audiences reacted
MM: They’ve been really terrific! There was a gentleman who shared with us that he was bringing a relative who had just lost his spouse. They were a little nervous about bringing him to the show because the loss was so new and they weren’t sure how he would react. He ended up loving it. T hat is really the issue; When you can have an emotional connection to a play it really does make the experience that much fuller. The laughter and response from the audience has been very strong, so i’m hopeful that they’ll have great success with it.
RL: The play came out in 1973 and obviously audience sensibility and attention spans have changed quite a bit since then. Have you had to change or update the script or make any changes to the staging?
MM: Yes. I worked with the set designer, Lauren Halprin to move the scenes in a more flowing and quicker way. Audience attention spans are much different now than they were in the seventies. If you look at the film version, it is more like a European movie because it’s very slow moving compared to what people are now used to. So far, the subtle changes that I’ve made seem to working very well and haven’t taken away from the story. It remains Universal because it’s a love story and everyone loves a love story.
RL: The movie version starred James Caan, with whom you worked in Cinderella Liberty. Do you have any fun anecdotes or stories about him.
MM: Jimmy is a wonderful, wonderful actor. I don’t think people really know just how versatile he is. He was so supportive of me as a young actress. He was more established than I was and he gave me 110 percent. He is truly wonderful and he’s got a real wicked sense of humor.
RL: In addition to directing, you’re preparing to play Helga Ten Dorp, a psychic, in the playhouse’s upcoming production of Deathtrap. How are you getting ready for that role?
MM: I’ve started practing my dutch accent and have memorized my first paragraph. (Laughs). That’s as far as I’ve gotten. It’s like being shot out of a cannon because we put each show up in two weeks’ time.
RL: You lived in New Mexico for some time. What inspired your move from the entertainment meccas of LA and NYC to take you there?
MM: Back in the eighties, the entertainment business was dramatically changing. It was becoming more and more youth oriented and I was getting older. So there weren’t as many opportunities. I decided to throw the pieces of my life up in the air and see how they might come down because I knew I couldn’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring. Although I also never planned on running a farm and becoming a business woman and entrepenuer with a product line. I just bought some land and one thing led to another. I’m really glad I did it because, at the time of my move, my personal identity was wrapped around being an actor. When I stopped working, it was a bit of an identity crisis. I thought ‘Who Am I?’ But the move to New Mexico caused so many things to happen: I ended up writing a memoir, working on a farm, and becoming a business woman. I ended up living in a completely different culture and I ultimately think it has made me a better person in the sense of a fuller personality. My work now is my work and I am much bigger now than I was twenty years in terms of patience and intelligence. That experience really enlarged my perspective about life. I’ve gained a new respect for cross cultural existence and living in a poverty state. It was a big learning curve in terms of bing a human being and I am very grateful for that.
RL: On the flip side, what caused you to sell the farm and get back into acting?
MM: Mostly, I was just getting tired (Laughs). It was hard work being a farmer. I wanted to downsize and simplify. I suppose it has to do with my personality. I’m sort of a renaissance kind of woman in that I like to do many different things.
RL: With all of the health products that you’ve created and sold, do you have any secrets for wellness and youth that you can share?
MM: A good night’s sleep is always helpful and I also think that being at peace with yourself and not letting your inner critic kill you is important . You’ve also got to courageous and go with the flow. Change is inevitable and it is really tough. We don’t like it all the time because it is facing the unknown. I’ve also had a very strong spiritual life, and I think that’s also very helpful.
RL: Are there any roles you’d like to tackle or projects you’d like to direct?
MM: I tend to stay in the present, so I don’t really have any plans right now. I’m a little nomadic. I don’t know where I’ll end up, though I have a feeling it will be more on the east coast. I thought I just won’t push too much and see what happens. So that’s where I’m at right now. I enjoy going back to Los Angeles for televison’s The Middle, which has been picked up for another year. I hope they’ll right something for me. Last year, I didn’t know that Robin Goodman would be taking over the playhouse and that they would be doing Chapter Two so you just never know.
Chapter Two and Deathtrap at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope PA. For tickets and information, call (215) 862-2121. http://www.bcptheater.org/. NJ Transit runS frequently to Trenton, where the theater is a short cab ride away. Otherwise, become friendly with a vehicle owner and mooch a ride. Google maps can guide you. Manhattan will still be here when you get back.