Sex comedies are hardly a rare commodity. Sex dramedies are another story. They’re an adult story that Michael Tucker tells with commendable maturity in Fern Hill, which is having its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, New Jersey. Smart and perceptive as Fern Hill is in its present state, however, it does happen to be compromised by a sizable problem.
Before getting into that, I should explain the circumstances under which I saw the new play. I learned on arrival that I was seeing the first of only three previews. Is that fair to the actors and director? I was assured by a spokesperson involved that it would be.
It turns out that the actors were in seemingly top form. They’re Jill Eikenberry (Tucker’s wife, as is well-known by watchers of eight L. A. Law seasons), John Glover, Dee Hoty, Jodi Long, Tom McGowan and David Rasche, theater veterans all. Furthermore, it’s a good bet they’ll only enrich their performances as the brief run extends. It was also obvious that director Nadia Tass is giving incisive guidance.
As for the play, I think I’ll discuss it as a highly promising work in progress. As of this initial presentation before an audience, I’d bet that Tucker will be doing much nipping and—forgive the pun—tucking. (N.B., Fern Hill was developed in 2017 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Playwright’s Conference.)
At the moment the play goes like this: Sunny (Eikenberry) and Jer (Rasche)—yes, they rhyme with Sonny and Cher—own an apparently non-working farm, Fern Hill, somewhere outside New York City. On many weekends they invite their closest friends up for respites from frenzied Manhattan. These are Darla (Hoty) and Vincent (Glover) and Michiko (Long) and Billy (McGowan). The weekend Tucker spotlights is a celebration of the men’s more or less joint birthdays. Billy is 60, Jer is 70 and Vincent, about to have surgery on his painful right hip, is 80.
As the work brings three couples together, Tucker can’t help but signal that something has to go wrong between and/or among the couples. So after the requisite establishing of six-sided camaraderie, during which the deep affection and minor personality differences emerge, the fly buzzing over Tucker’s ointment lands. Once the sufficiently enjoyable group lovemaking and light-hearted wisecracking is out of the way on Jessica Parks’ convincing farmhouse-kitchen set, a curious idea surfaces.
Rather than their merely assembling on weekends, it’s mooted that the six of them move in together, try communal living. Are we taking “dream” or “reality,” Michiko queries, attempting to know how further confab ought to proceed? Reality is the response, and five of the six indicate they’re gung ho. Unfortunately, they’re not unanimously gang ho. Jer, claiming he needs privacy, is against the idea.
Incidentally, all six bosom chums are artists or arts-related. Sunny is an aspiring painter, Vincent a more established one. They have mutual rapport. Jer is a teacher and writer evidently experiencing some blockage setbacks. Michiko has something to do with a fine arts department. Darla is a photographer set to attend a Vienna gallery opening in the first act and returned from its success in the second. Billy is a homespun gourmet cook and rocker, whose 1960s chart toppers, Olly Golly, still tour.
About the communal living I sided with Jer. I wasn’t convinced that the couples, artistic or not artistic, would actually go for this questionable proposition. All signs point to Tucker’s not being sold either, since the cockeyed notion is repeated for a while, never strongly fought for and eventually left to dangle unresolved in the air.
Superseding its importance is a plot emphasis that truly distinguishes Tucker’s comedy-drama. Trying to skirt spoilers, I’ll only say that Sunny brings up a marital problem Jer and she have not been facing. Their dispute prompts all six—who are well into middle age or, in Vincent’s case, kind of past it—to have a forthright discussion about sex in the early, later and latest stages of marriage.
I can’t think of another play—don’t bring up Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—on which the preeminently dicey subject is focused with such unimpeded honesty and adorned by genuinely sophisticated language. I can’t really speak for the audience in which I was seated, but I had the definite sense that Tucker’s taking on sex among the older generation was greatly appreciated. Something generally considered forbidden he turned into something decidedly bidden.
Reviewers are discouraged from rewriting plays for authors, but were I asked to, I’d suggest that Tucker forget about the Fern Hill live-in red herring, trim his two-actor to a one-actor starting soon after lights up with Sunny’s startling revelation and go from there.
Fern Hill opened August 11, 2018, at New Jersey Rep [Long Branch, NJ] and runs to September 9. Tickets and information: www.njrep.org