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Written by Michael Tucker; directed by Nadia Tass
Performances through October 20, 2019
Mark Linn-Baker and Jill Eikenberry in Fern Hill (photo: Carol Rosegg)
As a playwright, Michael Tucker is a terrific actor, as his play Fern Hill shows. This amusing if familiar sitcom about three couples that are also longtime friends is distinguished by the funny back-and-forth among the men and their wives (some friendly, some nasty), which Tucker writes with an ear toward the easy banter that veteran performers can make their own.
If the play itself suffers for that emphasis—laugh lines come regularly, at the expense of making the people speaking them full-bodied creations—it’s something unnoticed until later, because Fern Hill shows the facility of a Neil Simon play.
Fern Hill is the name of the sprawling farm where Jer, writer and professor (and whose 70th birthday brings the couples together), lives with his wife Sunny, an accomplished but self-critical painter. Visiting are Billy, a 60-year-old fading rock’n’roller with a penchant for cooking, and his wife Michiko, whom he met decades before while she was a groupie; and Vincent, a famous 80-year-old painter, and his wife, Darla, a professional photographer.
After nearly an hour’s worth of imbibing and good-natured ribbing about work and play and whether the six of them will live together as a sort of commune as a bulwark against getting old (Jer is adamantly against the idea), the first act turns on the revelation that Jer is having an affair—with a far younger student, no less.
The friction this causes allows other recriminations to well up, and the house is soon awash in bad feelings amid the many drinks, the play culminating in a six-way confessional of sorts to let Jer realize the error of his ways.
Director Nadia Tass guides this predictable but well-paced play to its conclusion on Jessica Parks’ superbly-detailed set, in which every inch of space tells us more about the characters—the paintings on the wall, the liquor they drink, the furniture they sit on—than Tucker’s script. But it’s the acting that gives Fern Hill its real pizzazz.
Jodi Long (Michiko) and Ellen Parker (Darla) have less to do than the others but still give finely-tuned comic performances. Mark Blum’s levelheaded Jer makes it easier to dislike him, while Jill Eikenberry (Tucker’s real-life wife) is given the widest character arc of all as Sunny deals with the fallout of Jer’s philandering. Eikenberry comes through in spades: her final glimpse at Blum gives us more insight into Sunny than Tucker’s script.
Last (and best) are the two scene stealers. As aging rocker Billy, Mark Linn-Baker—with his sideburns, goatee and long hair a dead ringer for David Crosby—gets many of the most pungent lines and spits them out with lascivious glee. And John Glover has great fun as the narcissistic artist Vincent (what else would his name be?), letting the dialogue fly and home in on whomever he’s targeting.
Linn-Baker and Glover give Fern Hill the comic heft it needs.
59 E 59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
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