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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
Blu-rays of the Week
Bill Forsyth’s miraculous movie—released in 1983, on the heels of his drily funny breakthrough, 1981’s Gregory’s Girl—is a perfectly realized fable set in the concrete caverns of Houston’s oil barons and the magical, moonlit vistas of Scotland. Shot by the great Chris Menges, Forsyth’s brilliant comedy-drama is so many things at once that it’s quite possible to watch and not realize it, instead just succumbing to a master storyteller’s unique ability to be witty, sardonic, romantic, sentimental and realistic simultaneously.
Mark Knopfler’s extraordinarily evocative score is one of the best ever heard; it’s shocking that none of the many extras that Criterion added to this edition feature it. The film looks luminous on Blu; extras comprise Forsyth and critic Mark Kermode’s commentary; a TV documentary about Menges; a making-of documentary featuring Forsyth and producer David Puttnam; and a Forsyth interview from the time of the film’s release.
In Luc Besson’s latest nonsensically slam-bang action flick, a Russian model is trained by the KGB to become a lethal killer—until she is strong armed by the CIA to become a double agent. There’s the usual titillation (Sasha Luss is a rockin’ heroine, a natural on the runway, in bed with her handlers, and blowing bad guys’ heads off), insanely detailed gunfights and car chases, and serious actors like Cillian Murphy and Helen Mirren spectacularly slumming.
Since it goes on for two hours, your mileage may vary—I could have been satisfied with 90 minutes easily. The film looks splendid on Blu; extras include making-of featurettes.
Country Music—A Film by Ken Burns
Ken Burns has returned with another thoughtfully researched and thorough overview of a rich, sweeping, quintessentially American subject—16 hours’ worth of talking heads (including such music luminaries as Merle Haggard, Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson and Rhiannon Giddens), vintage photographs, videos and audio recordings, with Peter Coyote’s narration acting as ringmaster for the sprawling but enthralling proceedings.
The Blu-ray set contains the entire series on eight discs, with first-rate hi-def audio and video; extras include additional interviews and a making-of featurette.
John & Yoko—Above Us Only Sky
This fascinating but sometimes self-indulgent documentary examines the recording of John Lennon’s 1971 Imagine album. In addition to footage of Lennon, Yoko Ono, producer Phil Spector and the other musicians—including, at one point, none other than George Harrison for a go at Lennon’s ferocious Paul put-down, “How Do You Sleep?”—in the studio, there are glimpses of the couple’s non-musical life, including their activism (the “War is Over” billboard in Times Square) and prankishness (Yoko’s phony “exhibit” at MOMA).
The hi-def video and audio are first-rate; extras are additional footage with Curt Claudio, a fan who figures in one of the film’s more alarming sequences, and alternate takes of three songs from the album.
Legends of Tomorrow—Complete 4th Season
Warner Bros. provided me with a free copy of this disc for review.
The time travelers that make up the Legends of Tomorrow begin the fourth season by showing up at JFK Airport as the Beatles arrive—in order to turn back Paul Revere on his horse, who’s warning that the wrong “British are coming.” Such tongue-in-cheek revisionism is at the heart of several of these 16 episodes, including a plot line about Woodstock and its hippies.
Although the goofiness is pervasive, the attractive cast makes the most of their going through time, which includes meeting younger versions of themselves. It all looks terrifically photogenic on Blu; extras include two featurettes, gag reel and deleted scenes.
Ron Howard’s documentary about the great Italian tenor—probably the most recognized and beloved classical singer since Enrico Caruso—is a hagiographic treatment of the most obvious sort. But that’s not surprising when it comes to memorializing such a towering figure: and the footage of Pavarotti himself (in interviews, opera and concert clips) backs up that theory, as he was such a gregarious, irresistible force of nature with such a naturally beautiful voice that it’s impossible not to be a fawning fan in his wake.
And that’s what this is, with only hints of the difficulties he caused for the women in his life. The hi-def transfer looks (and sounds) excellent; extras are three featurettes.
In this smart-ass reboot of the streetwise private eye series starring Richard Roundtree in the ‘70s, Shaft’s grandson JJ (Jessie T. Usher), a computer geek who works for the FBI, turns detective when his best friend is gunned down. His estranged father John Shaft (Samuel Jackson) appears, annoyingly and cavalierly messing things up as well as helping him out.
It’s a curious hybrid of father-son buddy-movie and blaxploitation spoof (Roundtree appears as grandfather Shaft) that goes on way too long. Too bad Regina Hall is barely visible as John’s ex and JJ’s mother, but that’s probably unavoidable in this testosterone-fueled context. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes, a gag reel and making-of featurettes.
DVDs of the Week
Elementary—Complete Final Season
Madame Secretary—Complete 5th Season
In the entertaining final season of Elementary, Holmes and Watson—Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu—find themselves in London after he leaves America to avoid a murder rap for which he was framed.
Another CBS prime-time staple, Madame Secretary, provides Tea Leoni with her juiciest role yet as the popular Secretary of State running for president. If that sounds familiar, then the episode in which Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and—yes—Hillary herself appear won’t be a surprise. Both sets’ extras comprise deleted scenes; Elementary also has featurettes and a gag reel.
CD of the Week
Soirée—Magdalena Kožená & Friends
Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená’s newest CD is a wonderful-sounding and impeccably-programmed recital collection that thoughtfully teams songs by her countrymen Dvořák and Janáček with equally exceptional works by the Frenchmen Chausson and Ravel, the Russian Stravinsky and the Germans Brahms and Strauss. Kožená’s bright, emotive voice is backed by a variety of expressive chamber groupings, and the stellar musicians on display include her husband, pianist Simon Rattle, violinists Wolfram Brandl and Rahel Rilling, violist Yulia Deyneko, cellist David Adorjan, clarinetist Andrew Marriner and flutist Kaspar Zehnder.
Project Grand Slam
PSG 7AlbumLive Show
125 MacDougal St.
One set – 7:30pm – 8:30pm.
Admission $5The brainchild of seasoned bassist/composer Robert Miller, Project Grand Slam (PGS) continues catalog building with PGS 7 — its latest release. This ensemble proves there’s no shame in sticking to your guns and hammering away with a fusion of Jazz, Rock and Latino stylizations — maybe not so familiar to a millennial and post-millennial crowd — but stuff deep in the craw of any proficient musician appreciative of these recordings. The dialogue the band makes between genres gets slicker and slicker with every subsequent release yet PSG never loses its raw, propulsive core. Originally formed in 2007, PGS has released eight well-received albums all acclaimed for lovers of fusion. Based in New York City.
PSG 7 may be the “album of the year” for lovers of great insrumentalists and great rock vocals. In so many ways PSG should at least come close given the paucity of musical depth so much pop music reflects. The previous release, “Greetings From Serbia (Jan. 2019) was recorded live at the Nisville Jazz Festival and is noted for being “a watershed record” — a great live document.But a studio returned was awaited by fans. The previous studio album Trippin’ (2018) hit Billboard’s chart and was named a “best of 2018” on many lists. Now, PSG 7 does that all that the previous studio album did and more. Pick it up or head to a live show.In anticipation of the new year, PSG starts its Fall performance schedule with a return engagement Friday, Sept. 20th at its “home base” in NYC — The Groove in Greenwich Village.
For more info go to: https://www.projectgrandslam.com/
Written by Bob Stevens; directed by Carol Dunne
Performances through September 29, 2019
Tommy Crawford and Christopher Sears in Only Yesterday (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Inspired by a couplet in Paul McCartney’s heartfelt 1982 elegy for John Lennon, “Here Today”—What about the night we cried?/Because there wasn’t any reason left to keep it all inside—Bob Stevens’ nostalgic Only Yesterday recalls an evening that Paul and John spent together in a Key West hotel room during the Beatles’ 1964 North American tour.
Freed from their responsibilities during the height of Beatlemania—and since the only local TV and radio stations are Spanish language and comprise mainly Fidel Castro speeches—the young men get to let their hair down, so to speak, and drink, smoke, sing and create new songs, argue, insult and berate each other: acting, in other words, like the close friends they are. Stevens confines the action, such as it is, to their room and allows only two other characters to intrude—the band’s unnamed road manager, and Shirley, a teenage Beatlemaniac who finds herself trapped in the air duct trying to sneak into their room and who ends up having a down-to-earth conversation with her least-favorite Beatles (she was hoping to get into George and Ringo’s room).
Although Stevens and director Carol Dunne nail the concept of two mega-celebrities being “normal,” if only for one night, they also take the easy way out, undercutting what is a diverting but ultimately sketchy show. When they finally get around to serious business, John tells Paul that he should start writing more substantial songs:
Do you want to keep writing love me do, ‘cause P.S. I love you and I want to hold your fookin’ hand for the rest of your life?!! Well, guess what? You can’t! Music’s changing. The lyrics have to mean something. You gotta keep up, mate!
Later, while discussing the untimely and premature deaths of their mothers—which has been an unspoken connection between them since they were teenagers—John tells Paul point blank that he should write a song about his mother Mary. So wouldn’t you know that, when the play ends and the lights fade, we hear the strains of “Let It Be,” Paul’s musical tribute to his mother—which he wrote several years later. Mission accomplished?
Only Yesterday is an enjoyable lark that blows up a tiny Beatles anecdote to 70 minutes, and it’s nicely acted by Tommy Crawford as a matter-of-fact Paul and Christopher Sears as a sneeringly acerbic John: although Sears inhabits John more comfortably than Crawford does Paul (at times, Crawford seems more George-like), they are both accomplished musicians—and Crawford is, correctly, a southpaw!—and their acting accurately dramatizes a brotherly bond that’s amusing and touching if (at least as presented here) ultimately superficial.
For true profundity, listen to Paul’s “Here Today”: he describes his relationship with John, with refreshing emotional directness, in less than three minutes.
59 E 59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
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