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Theatre in Review: Fern Hill (59E59)

Jodi Long, Mark Linn-Baker, Ellen Parker, John Glover. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

If nothing else, the spaghetti vongole sounds absolutely scrumptious. Early on in Fern Hill, Mark Linn-Baker, playing an aging rocker -- fitted out in faux Jerry Garcia style by the costume designer, Patricia Doherty -- provides a blow-by-blow account of the creation of his favorite pasta dish. (Perhaps the rigors of constant touring have left him with a taste for puttering in the kitchen; in any case, he is happy to commandeer any meal to which he is invited.) The combination of bacon, onions, wine, clams, and a Mack truck's worth of butter is presented in almost pornographic fashion, and Linn-Baker -- a good man to have on hand when the script calls for hyperbole -- brings it to life in mouth-watering detail, delivering the description with almost operatic intensity and reaching a crescendo that ended, at least at the performance I attended, in a round of applause. And, in a gesture of beneficence, the recipe is included in the show program. Kids: Do try this at home!

This is the first indication that the pleasures of Fern Hill are largely incidental. The actor-turned-playwright Michael Tucker has come up with an amiable, intermittently amusing conversation piece about marriage, friendship, aging, and adultery; despite its tendency to touch lightly on serious matters, it's the kind of entertainment that wouldn't say "boo" to a goose, so determined is it to leave the audience feeling warm and fuzzy. Tucker has convened three married couples -- ranging in age from sixty to eighty -- for a weekend in the country. Friends since forever, they have collectively come up with the idea of moving in together and forming a kind of sunset-years commune; that way, they can care for each other, and their kids will have nothing to worry about. They're a largely well-heeled group of artists and academics, and Jessica Parks' attractive Connecticut farmhouse interior seems like the perfect place for the busy retirement they all contemplate. Indeed, all systems are go until Jer, owner of the house and husband to Sunny -- yes, they're known as Sunny and Jer -- puts his foot down, insisting that the plan isn't real, never was, and he, for one, values his solitude. Soon after, a little revelation about infidelity sends everyone reeling, putting the idea in peril.

Fern Hill isn't in a hurry to get anywhere, and most of the first act is confined to discussions of creative blockages, hip replacements, gentrification, and incidents of free-floating anxiety. After Tucker gets around to detonating his single, rather muted bombshell, the action picks up a bit, resulting in a second act that offers a fairly steady procession of chuckles. Even so, the play is dogged by implausibility: Is Jer really the only sour apple in the bunch? Don't these people ever argue? Do small irritations never erupt? It doesn't help that the play climaxes in a group marital therapy session that requires everyone to reveal the gritty details of their sex lives. It's nice to see a play that understands such activities continue long after the kids have grown up and moved out but, even allowing for a few comic expressions of shame, this bunch has fewer filters than any panel of guests on Oprah Winfrey.

When Fern Hill amuses, it is, most often, thanks to a cast consisting of half a dozen of the New York theatre's finest. Aside from Linn-Baker's spaghetti aria, there's a delightfully impromptu bit in which Mark Blum, as Jer, helps John Glover, as his best friend, into a chair, tucking him in for night. (Glover's character is getting over that hip replacement and he doesn't take to being treated like a child; a little tussle about removing his glasses is easily the funniest thing in the show. He also has a priceless bit in which, confusing everyone, he compares their current domestic issues to the Cuban missile crisis.) Also, Jill Eikenberry, as a wronged wife, has touching way of falling silent and throwing up her arms in a halfway gesture of despair by way of admitting the sad truth about her love life. (She also has a stare so skeptical it could turn a Gorgon to stone.) Ellen Parker, handed the task of getting everyone to talk about their bedroom desires, makes a surprisingly plausible case for doing so; she continues to be one of the most unaffectedly radiant actresses around. If Jodi Long, as Linn-Baker's sensible spouse, has surprisingly little to do and Blum's character is too much of a spoiler at the feast, the fault lies with the playwright. ("So, you came over here to tell me what a schmuck I am?" he asks at one point, and all I could think was, About damn time.)

The director, Nadia Tass, guides her ensemble seamlessly; it's remarkably easy to believe that they share decades of history together. The rest of the design package -- including Kate McGee's delightful splashes of sunlight and a playlist of incidental songs, courtesy of sound designer Kenneth Goodwin, that includes "I Can Only Promise Love That Lasts Forever," "Tenderly," and "Honky Tonk Woman" -- is just right.

Fern Hill is probably best enjoyed by audiences of a certain age looking to see their lives represented onstage; it's not a spoiler to note that the production ends with the characters dancing about to vintage rock, proving that there's life in them yet. Interestingly enough, the people onstage are livelier than the gentle, mildly amusing comedy that houses them. For some spice, try the spaghetti.--David Barbour

(26 September 2019)

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