A bum hip and a broken marriage drive the chatter in Michael Tucker’s disjointed therapy session of a play, Fern Hill. Making its New York premiere at the 59E59 Theaters, following a 2018 run at the New Jersey Rep, the production boasts a cast full of familiar faces, including Tucker’s wife and former L.A. Law co-star, Jill Eikenberry, in the central roll of Sunny, a gloomy woman who must decide if she is capable of tolerating a cheating spouse. Indeed, tolerance is this drama’s leitmotif as Sunny and her hubby are joined by two other couples, at their upstate New York farmhouse, to decide just how much of one another, and of themselves, they can take.
James Joyce famously observed, “in the particular is contained the universal,” which is to say that, paradoxically, the more specific a circumstance, the more relatable it is to a wide audience. Tucker succeeds in creating a unique premise, but unfortunately Joyce’s paradox does not hold; it is hard to find much here with which to identify.
First of all, the three husbands, long-time friends, are all reaching a milestone birthday but are years apart in age and temperament. Billy (Mark Linn-Baker) is so named because he is the man-child of the bunch. Nearly 60, he is still a rock musician and has just completed a seventh farewell tour with his band, Olly Golly. With flowing hair and walrus mustache, Linn-Baker conjures up a less worldly David Crosby.
Vincent (John Glover), a successful painter, is pushing 80 and facing hip surgery. When not fretting over his own mortality, he exudes that kind of joie de vivre that causes him to break out in an ode or speak in Italian. In between is Sunny’s unfaithful and angry husband, Jer (Mark Blum), and yes, their marriage is at one point referred to as the Sunny and Jer Show.
On the brink of his 70th birthday, Jer is at odds with everyone and facing his own fears of the future. The group members have all been plotting to live together on the farm, sharing their golden years in a do-it-yourself senior living center all their own. But Jer assumed it was merely wishful thinking. With his friends now serious and ready to move in, he is rebellious. Sunny, with sympathy from Vincent’s wife, Darla (Ellen Parker), and Billy’s wife, Michiko (Jodi Long), decides it's time to let Jer know his infidelity is by no means a secret. Act I concludes with the two of them stuck tight in a state of love-hate:
Jer: What … happened … what drove me to this woman—has as much to do with you, with your behavior, as it does with mine. And you know it….
Sunny: I didn’t stop adoring you. You just got less adorable. When you were adorable I adored you. Like at that party? At the Finkelsteins? With all those dull people? You were standing on the stairs with a double gin martini, holding forth all brilliantly and dazzlingly just so that you could get me to look at you? What happened to that guy? Where’d that guy go?
Act II picks up two weeks and one hip replacement later, with the couples reconvening at the farm and the atmosphere no less thick with resentment. Darla and Michiko have decided to address the situation by calling for a group therapy session that they hope will “put a little air in the room.” Darla and Vincent describe their sex life. Michiko describes her and Billy’s sex life. Billy makes childish jokes. Jer scratches his head. And Sunny proclaims she’s not only angry at Jer, she is done being mad at herself. It’s not really a catharsis, but apparently enough of a revelation for the gang to continue onward along an uncertain path.
Director Nadia Tass brings a fluid pacing to the proceedings, along with a few boisterous moments of friends breaking out in dance, à la The Big Chill. The veteran cast is workmanlike but hindered by their characters’ habit of doing a lot of telling and not enough showing. Billy delivers what surely must be the longest description in theater history of how to prepare spaghetti with clam sauce, with minimal metaphorical payout. The others are mostly saddled with recounting the past while getting drunk on grappa or stoned on pot, glum as the voice in the Dylan Thomas poem from which the play takes its title: “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,/Time held me green and dying.”
Fern Hill plays through Oct. 20 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. To purchase tickets, call the 59E59 box office at (646) 892-7999 or visit 59e59.org.