'Fern Hill': Theater Review

Fern Hill Production Still 2 - Publicity - H 2019
Carol Rosegg
A geriatric 'Big Chill.'

An ensemble of acting veterans, including Jill Eikenberry and Mark Linn-Baker, appears in the new dramedy written by 'L.A. Law' actor Michael Tucker, about six friends who mull over the idea of living together in their old age.

Depending on your age and social and marital status, your reaction to the new play by Michael Tucker, a three-time lead actor Emmy nominee for L.A. Law, will vary. But there's one thing almost everyone who sees Fern Hill, about the friendship among three mature married couples, will experience afterwards, and that's a strong desire immediately to go home and cook.

That's because the highlight of this comedy-drama, featuring a superb ensemble cast, is a lengthy monologue delivered by Billy, a 60-year-old rock musician with a strong resemblance to Jerry Garcia, in the form of a detailed recipe for the perfect clam sauce. Performed in tour-de-force fashion by Mark Linn-Baker (My Favorite Year, Perfect Strangers), the passionately delivered culinary lesson is the play's indisputable standout scene.

As you might guess, that's also a bit of a problem for a work dealing with such weighty subjects as aging, friendship and marriage. There's plenty of fine, incisive writing on display, but the play too often attempts to sandpaper its interestingly rough edges with the sort of one-liners that make it feel like a sitcom pilot.

Fern Hill, which premiered last summer at the New Jersey Repertory Company, is set in the well-appointed farmhouse belonging to Sunny (Jill Eikenberry, Tucker's L.A. Law co-star and real-life spouse) and Jer (Mark Blum) — their names alone give you an idea of the frequent straining for cutesiness. The couple periodically host weekend gatherings that include their married friends Billy (Linn-Baker) and Michiko (Jodi Long), and Vincent (John Glover) and Darla (Ellen Parker). The three men all are either celebrating or about to celebrate milestone birthdays of 70, 60 and 80 respectively, with most of the wives several years younger.

As in a Woody Allen film, the characters all have artistic or intellectual pursuits (there isn't a doctor, lawyer or business executive in the bunch); Vincent, for example, is a celebrated painter, while Darla is a photographer who's just scored her first solo gallery show.

We soon learn that the friends, or at least most of them, have embraced Sunny's concept dubbed "The Commune Project." The idea is that they will all live together in the farmhouse (and its attendant barn), the better to face the health issues and indignities that will inevitably accompany their dotage years. "And when we need it, we pitch in and hire a caretaker to, you know, deal with the bedpans," Sunny explains. This naturally leads to an exchange about whether the proper term is "caretaker" or "caregiver."

The sole holdout to the idea is Jer, who adamantly insists, "It will be the end of privacy as we know it." He sarcastically informs his wife, "The Sixties are dead, my darling." 

It's an intriguing notion for senior living, one to which you can sense some of the older audience members, and there are plenty of them at this Eastside off-Broadway theater, responding positively; you can practically imagine the discussions taking place afterwards. Unfortunately, the playwright dilutes the impact of his premise with a much more banal plotline involving marital infidelity. Although the revelation eventually leads to one of the play's best scenes, depicting an impromptu group therapy among all six friends, most of what precedes that feels all too familiar.

Nonetheless, the play goes down easily, thanks to Tucker's gift for writing snappy comic dialogue and the terrific performances by a wildly overqualified ensemble composed entirely of faces familiar from film, theater and television. The veteran performers work beautifully together, not only in fully embodying their sometimes underwritten characters but also by making us genuinely believe their comradery and friendship. (It might have been wise, however, for Tucker and director Nadia Tass to have avoided the inevitable Big Chill comparisons by not having the characters often spontaneously dance to classic pop songs.)

Fern Hill doesn't fully succeed in blending its serious and comic themes, often coming across as facile and, unlike that so rapturously described clam sauce, undercooked. But the entertaining play will certainly resonate with its target demographic. And even if you're not there yet, you probably will be someday. 

Venue: 59E59 Theaters, New York
Cast: Mark Blum, Jill Eikenberry, John Glover, Mark Linn-Baker, Jodi Long, Ellen Parker
Playwright: Michael Tucker
Director: Nadia Tass
Set designer: Jessica Parks
Costume designer: Patricia Doherty
Lighting designer: Kate McGee
Sound designer: Kenneth Goodwin
Presented by MBL Productions & Mary J. Davis with Judith Manocherian, in association with New Jersey Repertory Company