An intimate premiere hits the “Spot” at NJ Rep

M Spot 3(COLOR)Pheonyx Vaughn is a massage therapist summoned to the rescue of long-married couple Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker in THE M SPOT, Tucker’s original play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (Photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

Long ago and far away, on a broadcast-network landscape far removed from Netflix, Showtime and HBO, the characters of L.A. Law mined comic gold from an unspecified, life-changing boudoir maneuver known as “the Venus Butterfly.” Here in 2015, on the stage of New Jersey Repertory, a pair of L.A. Law castmates have gone far beyond the Butterfly with “The M Spot,” the unorthodox and frankly refreshing play now in its world premiere run.

Written by actor and author Michael Tucker — and pairing Tucker with Jill Eikenberry, his longtime partner in life, love, series television, book tours and the olive oil business — this study of a marriage at the crossroads (and an unexpected detour that marks the way home) could perhaps only have been successfully realized by the veteran couple known as The Tuckerberrys. It almost certainly could never have been brought before area audiences by anyone other than the Long Branch-based NJ Rep company.

Directed by Rep regular Evan Bergman — whose past credits include the ensemble piece “Jericho,” a New York production of which co-starred Eikenberry — The M Spot casts the two performers (best known as L.A. Law associates Ann and Stuart) as Maddie and Jerry, a long-running partnership whose diminishing sex life and diverging interests have left them “becoming each other’s mothers.” In the play’s first act, claustrophobically confined to an edge of the tiny Rep stage, the audience is invited ready-or-not to listen in, as the couple scroll through a litany of complaints, confessions, and conflicting accounts of trivial (but pivotal) incidents from a decades-long relationship that began as a thrilling extramarital affair.

Addressing the audience one by one — in a manner not unlike how TV lawyers stand up and argue their cases — the middle-aged marrieds harp on each other’s annoying habits (her overuse of “I know;” his refusal to give up smoking pot), lament the betrayal of their own bodies (her recurrence of breast cancer; his inexplicable rash), and can’t help but summon up the ghosts of their parents (her dad, his mom) on their way to grappling with the nature of truth (“an aphrodisiac,” as Maddie sees it).

It’s a session that’s colored — the stars’ assurances to the contrary — by the publicly private experiences of Eikenberry and Tucker (there’s even a sly plug for his novel After Annie). It’s also an entertaining interlude, in the way that something like Christopher Durang’s Laughing Wild can be when done properly — but it’s not really The M Spot, and observers who sense that there’s much more to be discovered on the other side of that wall are proven correct in the play’s second half.

It’s Jerry’s idea that he and Maddie book a weekend at a rustic, new-agey retreat equipped with clothing-optional hot pool, private “sensual masseuse,” and a hoped-for “three-way” that should re-stimulate their sex lives “all the way to assisted living.” But with Jerry disappeared on a time-consuming search for a liquor store — and Maddie unsure of exactly what’s expected of her — things are hardly in order for the unexpectedly early arrival of that masseuse; a vaguely hippie-ish, gregariously cheerful young woman by the name of Star Rabinowitz (Pheonix Vaughn).

On her way to a babysitting commitment with her niece (and coming off a “tantric orgasm class”), Star makes the most of her limited time with her anxious client; recommending a special “sacred spot” massage (“It’s more like an exorcism”) that’s designed to delve deep into the physical site where the accumulated hurts and fears of a lifetime collect and reside. What happens from that point is that Star works her magic — the wise and reassuring young professional guiding the older woman to a place she never imagined existed, and the play finding a hushed and deliberate rhythm that’s unlike anything else you’ll likely encounter on the suburban stage.

Having kicked away the fourth wall entirely in the first act, Tucker and Bergman invite the audience to witness what truly seems like an intensely private moment between real people; not as seedy voyeurs but as sharers in a special experience. It’s the director’s genius here that the scene feels anything but orchestrated, blocked and rehearsed. And while we briefly get to see very much of Pheonix Vaughn — the production comes with a cautionary regarding “adult themes and nudity” — her formidable acting gifts convey the fact that it couldn’t be anyone up there but the supremely skilled Star (there’s nary a trace of the repressed 1940s homemaker she played in one of NJ Rep’s most successful past productions, The Housewives of Mannheim).

The re-appearance of a hurt, confused and “lost” Jerry results in a dramatic exchange that’s resolved (if such things are ever resolved) on a hopeful note — and The M Spot sends homeward-bound theatergoers back to their cars with the sense that they’ve gotten a bracing bit of therapy for the price of their ticket.

The M Spot continues with performances Thursdays through Sundays (including a newly added extra weekend) until April 5. Ticket reservations ($42), showtimes and additional information can be obtained by calling 732-229-3166 or visiting www.njrep.org.

DIAL ‘M’ FOR MARRIED

‘LA Law’ power couple premieres a new play at New Jersey Rep

(Originally published in the Asbury Park Press, February 28, 2015)

On the long-running TV series “L.A. Law,” they spent eight full seasons (1986-1994) in the roles of the somewhat nebbishy tax attorney Stuart Markowitz, and the elegant legal eagle Ann Kelsey — colleagues whose complicated onscreen relationship (remember the “Venus Butterfly?”) was initially deemed far-fetched by fans, even after it was revealed that the co-stars Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry had actually been married to each other since 1973.

In fact, the story goes that during one of the show’s final seasons, a new team of writers suggested that Ann and Stuart’s characters might best be energized by a dramatic divorce subplot — to which Tucker replied, “there’s already plenty of drama within a happy marriage.” 

The wrap-up of that acclaimed Steven Bochco ensemble drama — a run during which the power-couple known as “the Tuckerberrys” also produced and acted together in several TV movie projects — saw neither the end of their marriage, nor any slowdown to their professional collaborations. The decades since have found Jill and Michael engaging in a panorama of activities that have ranged from performing in the venerable stage duet “Love Letters,” to serving up live cooking demos. They’ve written songs together; produced a PBS documentary on artist Emile Norman; and have grown, personally picked and bottled their own olive oil from their second home in the Italian countryside.

With Michael staying busy as “the writer of the family,” the Tuckerberrys have remained highly visible on the printed page, through books like “I Never Forget a Meal” (a foodie’s account of a lifelong love affair) and “Living in a Foreign Language” (a diary of the Manhattan-based couple’s arrival in Italy). The memoir “Family Meals” recounted the efforts of the family (including chef daughter Allison and musician son Max) to rally in support of Jill’s aging mother as she slipped into dementia — and the 2012 novel “After Annie” mined comic gold from such less-than-likely inspirations as Eikenberry’s real-life battles with breast cancer. 

Beginning this weekend, the husband-wife team with the Sonny-to-Cher height ratio is once more highly visible — in contexts both familiar (as co-stars in a new stage play) and, in Tucker’s case, scary-new (as the first-time playwright of said script). The occasion is the world premiere of a full-length show called “The M Spot” — and the host venue is none other than that Shore-based incubator of cutting-edge theater, New Jersey Repertory Company.

Directed by frequent NJ Repertory associate Evan Bergman (“A View of the Mountains” and many others), the play casts Eikenberry and Tucker as Maddie and Jerry — a long-wed couple “looking for something to recapture the former vitality of their marriage.”  Their ongoing quest for some effective therapy has led them to a New Age spa — equipped with a “sensual masseuse” named Star (the skilled and glamorous Pheonix Vaughn, of NJ Rep’s “Housewives of Mannheim” and more), a specialist in nude massages and sexual healing. It’s a retreat that has Jerry “all for it,” even as Maddie remains “skeptical about the process and his motives.” 

“This is not The Mike and Jill Story — although I’ve certainly drawn inspiration from us to some extent,” explains Tucker, heading off the obvious question. “We weren’t even intending to act in it originally — so you’re not necessarily seeing ‘us’ on the stage — although our sense of intimacy will certainly come through at times.” 

“It’s a brave exposure of a relationship…a lot of things come up that most people don’t ever get to in public,” says Eikenberry, who worked previously with director Bergman on an Off Broadway production of Jack Canfora’s “Jericho.” 

“Maddie is not Jill — it’s up to me to discover exactly who Maddie is — and yet some things about her feel very close to me.” 

Tucker, who takes the tack that marital issues aren’t things to be “resolved” (“you don’t ‘resolve’ something that goes on til you die”) sees his “M Spot” characters as people who haven’t so much encountered a brick wall, as “a narrowing of the chute…they’re getting to the age where they really need to define themselves.”

“Jerry is facing the diminishment of his physical powers, and he’s feeling pushed to confront all his old neuroses — to which Maddie says ‘you might want to get to it before you die’ — and his way of dealing with everything is, Let’s Juice It Up, whereas with Maddie it’s Let’s Strip It All Away.” 

The Tuckerberrys, who plan a return to their Italian olive grove following the conclusion of the play’s run, are of course in perfect agreement about their relationship with NJ Rep, a forum that Jill calls “amazing…they’re so nurturing of challenging and risky works. It’s reminding me of why I got into theater in the first place.”

 
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