Thursday, September 19, 2019

72 (2019-2020): Review: FERN HILL (seen September 17, 2019)

(THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE is now a book--two books, in fact. No, make that three books! The first covers the 2012-2013 season, when, at the age of 72, I began reviewing plays. It contains full reviews and shorter comments on 150 shows, as well as a brief memoir on how I got into this critical mess. The 2013-2014 season follows, with 300 substantial reviews, so many it had to be published in two volumes (May to November; December to April). Both are available at affordable prices (paperback and Kindle) at Christmas is coming so why not consider them as gifts for your theatreloving friends and family? Click here for more information.)

“Sex and the Sexagenarian”

The Merriam-Webster definition of “dramedy” is “a comedy . . . having dramatic moments,” which well defines Fern Hill, Michael Tucker’s superficially titillating but nonetheless enjoyable concoction about sexual perturbations among a group of still randy geriatrics. It’s now playing at 59E59 after premiering last year at the New Jersey Repertory Company with a slightly different cast. 
Mark Linn-Baker, Jill Eikenberry. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
Its easy to imagine Fern Hill’s ensemble of three aging couples—Sunny and Jer, Darla and Vincent, and Michiko and Billy—all great pals, each with their own charms, as material for a TV sitcom called “Old Friends.” Of course, they’d never achieve the humongous acceptance of that classic sextet of bosom buddies known as Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, and Joey. However, judging from the audience when I went, a lot of seniors might enjoy seeing a reflection of their own marital, romantic, and, especially, sexual concerns mirrored by droll sexagenarians and septuagenarians.
Not that Fern Hill’s characters are all that universal, unique, or unusual. Tucker, an actor many will remember from TV’s “L.A. Law,” has imagined an artsy, but not artsy fartsy, gang of comrades who get together regularly at Fern Hill, the country house of Sunny (Jill Eikenberry, also of “L.A. Law” and Tucker’s real-life wife) and Jer (Mark Blum). She’s a painter unsure of her abilities; he’s a 70-year-old professor and writer of philosophically bleak nonfiction. 
Ellen Parker, Jill Eikenberry.
Darla (Ellen Parker) is a photographer who, it appears, also teaches at Jer’s college and is successful enough to be showing her work in Vienna and Prague. Like the other women, her age is not mentioned but she’s somewhat younger than her husband, Vincent (John Glover), a well-reputed painter, nearing 80, who has hip replacement surgery during the play.
John Glover, Ellen Parker.
Rounding out the cast are Michiko (Jodi Long), an art professor—it would seem—at the same college, and Billy, a longhaired rock musician. He’s turning 60 when the play begins, his once popular band, Olly Golly, is in decline, and the couple are having financial problems.
Jodi Long, Mark Linn-Baker, Ellen Parker, John Glover.
The couples are gathered for Billy’s birthday (and Jer’s upcoming one) in Fern Hill’s upscale kitchen/dining room (including an old-fashioned fridge side by side with a new one), designed with live-in readiness by Jessica Parks. Suitably costumed by Patricia Doherty, the aging, cultured, and verbally acute friends banter, drink, smoke weed (offstage), and, as typical in such comedies, vie to be the wittiest and most charming—not that the effort doesn’t show. Highlighting act one is a friendly dispute between Billy and Jer over who makes the best clam sauce, culminating in Billy offering a glowing, aria-like exhibition of mouthwatering, culinary grandiloquence.
Mark Blum, Jill Eikenberry.
But, apart from our observing the interplay of sociable relations and rivalries, not much happens until, as the end of act one approaches, the characters begin to discuss the feasibility of living at Fern Hill as a commune, where they can share their sunset years, caring for one another and sharing the burdens certain to come their way. All are okay with the idea except for Jer.
Jill Eikenberry, Mark Linn-Baker.
Act two might be expected to take the communal idea further but it gets sidetracked by the subject of one friend’s adultery, the adulterer placing the blame on perceived intimacy problems with their spouse. This, with the threat it raises regarding the group’s cohesiveness, inspires an intervention. Designed to bring the couple back together by having everyone openly discusses their sex lives, it has an innate interest for us eavesdroppers, even though not everyone is thrilled to be frankly talking about such matters.
Mark Linn-Baker, John Glover, Mark Blum, Jill Eikenberry, Jodi Long, Ellen Parker.
The fact that all these geezers (even the months-from-being-an-octogenarian Vincent) are intensely active bedpartners raises more questions than it answers, and the confessions, relatively open as they are, tend to be more allusively sedate than pornographically detailed. Intrinsically intriguing as they may be, they don’t add anything new to the issue of marital betrayal that other plays haven’t explored, like, for example, the current revival of Pinter’s Betrayal. The pleasures offered us lie more in the carefully limned performances than in the lessons purveyed about ego and self-awareness.  
Mark Linn-Baker, Mark Blum, Jodi Long, Jill Eikenberry, Ellen Parker, John Glover.
Nadia Tass does a lovely job with a cast of well-known, top-notch actors. The way she opens act two, described in the script merely as “Vincent is lying on the open recliner, which has been made up with sheets and a blanket,” is priceless. For it, she creates a mostly pantomimic scene, with improvised chatter, revealing how Vincent got there the night before. Intended to show the depth of the love these characters have for one another, it involves Jer helping Vincent, suffering the pain of his hip operation, settle ever so gently into the recliner, while Ben Webster’s jazzy sax rendition of “Tenderly” covers the action.
John Glover, Mark Linn-Baker, Mark Blum, Jill Eikenberry, Jodi Long.
 Tass gets honest, non-actorish work from everyone (although the otherwise appealing Eikenberry sometimes borders on the inaudible). Especially noteworthy are Mark Linn-Baker, giving one of his best performances in years as the avuncular source of the funniest lines, and Marc Blum (in a role originally played by David Rasche) as Sunny’s agonized husband.  
John Glover, Mark Linn-Baker, Ellen Parker, Jodi Long, Jill Eikenberry, Mark Blum.
Fern Hill treats the potentially thought-provoking topics of senior sex and communal living for old friends in comfortable, not particularly challenging ways, and it would benefit from more laughs than it presently provides. But its two hours go down easily, its production quality never falters, and, if you’re of a certain age, you may even give some thought to where you stand (if you still can) on the issues it addresses.

59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through October 20