Fuel Crisis

Three new low-octane, star-driven vehicles

Photo by Dean Williams Joan Cusack has come to series television, ladies and gentlemen, and you can send executive producer James L. Brooks (and his producing pals David Richardson and Richard Sakai) a little thank-you note for bringing her there. I am still slightly skeptical of What About Joan(its meaningless title might as easily have been Here's Joan, Love That Joan, NYPD Joan, Joan and Chachi, The Mary Tyler Joan Show, or just plain Joan — not to say Just Plain Joan); in its early days, the series seemed the quintessence of self-stunting professionalism, the sort of thing produced by people who have mastered their craft to the detriment of their art, who know so well how to build a particular machine that they have stopped imagining different machines that might serve as well or better, or might produce new and unexpected ends. Most of what supports and surrounds Cusack — the usual cadre of troublesome friends, the job (high school teacher) that has nothing much to do with anything — is perfunctorily functional. But something has started to happen here, and the leads, at least, are becoming real, and I am on the verge of clutching them — Cusack and co-star Kyle Chandler, late of Early Edition, newly coupled and serious about it — to my bosom like a worn velveteen rabbit with one eye gone and the stuffing out.

Cusack is not like any other player on TV. She's uncontained; half her comedy is the comedy of attempted containment, and the other half is the comedy of release. She has the floppy body English of an adolescent golden retriever — her limbs seem barely connected to her body — and a face, or faces, made to be drawn by Al Hirschfeld, eyes and lips all scrunching together toward the tip of her nose, chin defiantly racing out ahead of the rest of her. She has Parker Poseyish indie cred, though she's on TV on account of her mainstream crowd-pleasers — Working Girl, In & Out— movies in which she played, to be sure, the resident oddball. She's oddball here as well, though a more grounded, well-rounded sort of oddball, being the central character and not a sidekick or a subplot, being for that matter nearly the whole show. Without her — with any less singular actress in her place — it would blow away, there is so little to it. (Which, after all, can be said about most star-driven sitcoms.) What About Joan is also, to get factoidal on your ass, the first comedy series to be filmed entirely in Chicago, and its best qualities, as manifested in Cusack and Chandler, seem to reflect that city — friendly, open, tender-hearted, aspiring to balance but loopy deep down. I wait, not without hope, to see what develops. (Points also awarded for Rose McGowan guest spot.)

"It's the singer, not the song," quoth a great modern philosopher. A gifted interpreter can go some way, some partial way, to redeeming standard or even substandard material; and even when the material is virtually unredeemable, even when the vehicle is belching smoke and rusted through, fenders crumpled and bumpers tied on with rope, with old coffee cups and black banana peels under the seat, and a bad smell coming from somewhere, we will go along for the ride for the sake of the driver's company. Television, which has more time to fill than brilliant material to fill it with, depends on this particular desire; it is — with exceptions, with exceptions — a place of bright personalities more than of fine writing, and it is the common practice to cast first, ask questions later.

Thus did Nathan Lane, a Broadway favorite who became a national star with the film of The Birdcage,come to NBC a couple-few seasons back in the sitcom Encore! Encore!,which proved a very unreliable vehicle, indeed — a bit of a death trap, really. Now here he is in Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor,a TV movie of a play about television, reprising a role he created onstage as Simon's old boss Sid Caesar. This is one of two big-name theatrical productions mounted this month by Showtime in its ongoing drive toward respectability and class — toward becoming HBO, essentially — the other being its version of Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (the title here shorn of the Ignatiusand the for You), with no less a personage than Diane Keaton in the title role, under the direction of Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote Annie Hall. It's too much to say that Lane and Keaton are the only good things about their respective pictures — the cast in each case, which includes familiar small-screen players Peri Gilpin (of Frasier) and Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson) in the Simon play and Wallace Langham (on What About Joancurrently, The Larry Sanders Showand Veronica's Closetformerly), Laura San Giacomo (Just Shoot Me) and Brian Benben (Dream On) in Durang's, is uniformly fine, and Laughteris an especially good-looking film, with unusually convincing period design. But apart from the star turns, there's no real reason to stay in for them; the spirits are willing, but the texts are weak.

One of Simon's several memoir-plays, Laughter on the 23rd Floorrecalls the days when television was golden and the author worked for Sid Caesar alongside the likes of Larry Gelbart and Mel Brooks (both portrayed here, fictionally). There is no story, no plot, no theme, no ideas, no character development and, apart from Caesar — here called Max Prince — no real characters, just a place and time and the generalized stress of falling ratings, network interference, substance abuse (the old-fashioned substances: alcohol, prescription drugs and fatty foods) and the McCarthy era, which is commented upon (for gravitas) but has no direct effect on anyone present. Each of Prince's several writers is given an establishing feature — this one is a hypochondriac, this one wants to go to Hollywood, this one wears funny clothes, this one is a woman, this one is Neil Simon — and a quota of limp gags, but they are all dressed up with nowhere to go. Peri Gilpin gets deeper material, and better lines, on any given episode of Frasier. And so Lane is left to draw us on by the sheer force of his performance, to flesh out Simon's sketch-from-memory, and he does to the extent that he is immensely enjoyable to watch, though not to the extent that we have a meaningful dramatic experience with the person he represents. Still, it's hard to imagine another actor doing any better with it. Currently taking the Zero Mostel part in Mel Brooks' musical stage adaptation of The Producers(as he previously took the Zero Mostel part in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Lane is a product of the kind of theater that formed many of TV's early clowns, and authentically urban and ethnic; he wears Max Prince's skin like his own. Recommended, therefore, but with reservations.

Likewise, Diane Keaton, a big enough movie star that her small-screen presence is in itself an event, is the engine driving Sister Mary Explains It All, which begins brightly as a comic monologue — the annual Christmas lecture of a slightly dotty control-freak bully for Jesus — and gets messy (literally, metaphorically, aesthetically) in the second half, when four former students arrive to offer unsought criticism and "shocking" revelations, precipitating a crisis of a very theatrical sort. (I will say that there is a gun involved.) The play's bark is somewhat worse than its bite, but it is 20 years old, after all, and may be excused for making points (re: the logical absurdity of strict faith) that have been made often since, though not for not making them better. It's also betrayed by its essential staginess: In a theater, the audience Sister Mary addresses is the actual audience, and the rhythms of the performance depend to a large extent on the accompanying reactions (e.g., laughter) of real people in a room; the pacing here seems off as a result, and the response of the onscreen viewers continually out of phase with one's own. But Keaton is delightful to watch, an actress of great range who never seems to be acting at all. Subverting her innate likability, she is scary and funny and perversely persuasive, even if it doesn't add up to much: The singer, once again, not the song. WHAT ABOUT JOAN | ABC Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m. NEIL SIMON'S LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR Showtime | Premieres Saturday, May 26, 8 p.m. SISTER MARY EXPLAINS IT ALL | Showtime Premieres Sunday, May 27, 8 p.m.

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