Redwood Curtain

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TV Show
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April 21, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Like lots of people, I’m still susceptible to the middlebrow adolescent notion that the theater is an artistic medium inherently superior to TV or the movies; maybe it’s because that’s what I was taught in school and because I’ve seen so few plays. In any case, it was nice to have this notion disabused once again while watching REDWOOD CURTAIN (ABC, April 23, 9-11 p.m.), the 184th edition of the Hallmark Hall of Fame. This made-for-television film is an adaptation of Lanford Wilson’s acclaimed play; Jeff Daniels, who starred in the Broadway version, reprises his role here. The story revolves around Geri (Miss Saigon’s Lea Salonga), an 18-year-old Amerasian who was adopted as a baby by a well-to-do California couple, Laird and Julia Riordan, played by John Lithgow and Catherine Hicks. Geri has grown to be an accomplished classical pianist with a successful concert career, but when Redwood Curtain begins, she’s undergoing a kind of crisis: She’s become so consumed by the notion of finding out who her real parents are that her performances are suffering. Geri has always been closest to her adoptive father, and Laird, who manages her career and sees in Geri the sort of musician he’d always longed to be, is deeply troubled by her sudden insistence on tracking down her birth parents. Over the past few years, Lithgow has devoted himself to nutty, over-the-top roles-in the Brian De Palma movie Raising Cain, in the 1993 cable-TV film The Wrong Man-that made him look like a good actor gone mannered and eccentric. Here, as well as in last month’s My Brother’s Keeper, Lithgow steadies himself. He has always been good at infusing WASP stereotypes with real emotions, but his Laird goes even deeper. Lithgow makes us understand Laird’s pain even as the actor takes care to show us that Laird isn’t really a very nice man: He drinks excessively out of self-pity, and his love for Geri often curdles into petulant self-interest. Lithgow does this, mind you, in spite of-not because of-the lines he delivers. As adapted for TV by Ed Namzug, Curtain is full of fortune-cookie verbiage, such as Laird’s kitchen-inspired metaphor for his own dry-eyed despair: ”Maybe the secret of cutting onions is to have no tears left.” To which his housekeeper responds, ”If we have no tears, who are we?” Oh, please- I’ll take Frasier one-liners over this sort of impacted wisdom any day. At any rate, Geri was born in Vietnam during the war; about all she knows is that she had a Vietnamese mother and an American-soldier father. On a hunch, she goes to Northern California, to the redwood forest, where a group of antisocial Vietnam veterans are living. There she meets Lyman Fellers (Daniels), a particularly hostile, seemingly deranged vet, whom she comes to believe is her real father. Why? Well, because Laird, also a veteran of the war, told her he’d read medical records saying that her father had one brown eye and one blue eye, and guess what Fellers has? Fellers pretends to be dumb-aggressive stupidity is the defense that keeps the world at bay-but Daniels never makes him dumber than he needs to be. Salonga radiates intelligence and strength, but she’s no cold fish; she displays a lovely light touch in the movie’s less serious moments. Hicks was brave to take an unsympathetic role-that of a moneybags socialite who’s never spent much time with her daughter-and play it straightforwardly, neither softening Julia nor turning her into a monster. As Curtain proceeds, Hicks conveys Julia’s changed attitude toward Geri in small, subtle expressions of hesitation and self-doubt. In the minor but crucial role of Laird’s sister, Debra Monk (also reprising her Broadway role) brings a hearty briskness absolutely essential to keeping this frequently turgid drama in motion. The direction of Redwood Curtain by TV-movie veteran John Korty is as understated as Wilson’s play is overstated. And the dialogue and pace aren’t any better than those of the average episode of-well, I was going to say NYPD Blue, but Sisters is more like it. Yet Curtain’s calm tone, novel subject, and well-thought-out performances render it compelling. B

Redwood Curtain

type
TV Show
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In Season
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Redwood Curtain

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