"Hyde in Hollywood" gets off to a less than rousing start. The sets have that unreal, two-dimensional stagy feel that never looks quite right on television. That only emphasizes the actors' excessive theatricality that never sounds quite right on television.
And it turns out this play is about playwrights, or, even worse, it's by a playwright writing about Hollywood screenwriters, so you figure the disdain will continue dripping off every character for two hours.
But, stick with this PBS "American Playhouse" presentation because once you get by the roadblocks of these conventions, you discover a work of great depth and unusual resonance. "Hyde in Hollywood," a play by Peter Parnell, will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, tonight at 10 o'clock.
The story, set in 1939, is essentially the struggle between a young, brash, egotistical and, apparently, enormously talented actor/director named Julian Hyde and an ambitious celebrity gossip columnist who never goes by any name other than Hollywood Confidential. They call him H.C. for short.
Hyde is married to a beautiful star who is mysteriously murdered under the Hollywood sign at the play's beginning. That, of course, sets H.C. to snooping around the life of this enfant terrible, and eventually he discovers that Hyde is desperately hiding his homosexuality.
Hyde manages to stay in the closet but only by propping the door closed with an unethical bargain. Then he attempts to have the last word by making a movie about a gossip columnist, playing the lead role himself as a virtual impersonation of Hollywood Confidential.
Meanwhile, fueled by his growing amount of insider material, H.C. has risen to national prominence, not just as a purveyor of gossip but as a moral leader fighting the sin and degradation of Hollywood.
The two are thus set on a collision course that would have ramifications far beyond the borders of Tinsel Town.
Parnell has sprinkled his script with direct and indirect references to actual stars. You hear bits of gossip about people like Clark Gable, and the dead woman's last name is Todd, an obvious reference to Thelma Todd, a Hollywood comedian who died in mysterious circumstances.
These serve as a doorway into the resonance of reality throughout "Hyde in Hollywood." For instance, it is evident that Hyde -- a young genius, actor and director, with total control over his films -- echoes the career of Orson Welles. And the film Hyde is making is the same sort of aggressive roman a clef that Welles made about William Randolph Hearst, "Citizen Kane."
But beyond those parallels are the clear references to every sort of witch hunt that has gone on -- and is going on -- in this nation. The character of H.C. could be based on Joseph McCarthy, Jesse Helms or a dozen other such figures who have sprung up to protect us from ourselves throughout the history of our artistic and personal freedom.
And Hyde's response -- sacrificing his integrity to save his art, then trying to justify that by using his art to do good -- was that of so many who have given in to pressures such as the blacklist. Just look at what Budd Schulberg wrote in "On the Waterfront." Indeed, Hyde's name takes on two meanings as he is hiding the fact that he is gay and ultimately acts to save his hide.
Finally, "Hyde in Hollywood" becomes a commentary on the fine line between image and reality, one of the essential questions about any sort of art, particularly these days. Both Hyde and H.C. appear to be something very different from what they are, but that appearance is actually much more powerful than their reality, so perhaps it is also more important.
Parnell ends the play by letting us know that they are, despite their opposing roles, two of a kind, though he does tilt the scales toward his own profession in a denoument that is a virtual copy of a scene from "Citizen Kane."
Robert Joy, who was in "Desperately Seeking Susan," is able to capture Hyde's vulnerable ambition, while Keith Szarabajka makes H.C. a low-life who finds himself driving down the high road. Peter Frechette, who was so good in "thirtysomething," is wasted as a playwright working with Hyde, apparently a role that was supposed to serve as Hyde's conscience but is never developed.
"Hyde in Hollywood" is set in a time when the movie legends were at the height of their fantastic development. Its message is valid for any age when those who would entertain us or lead us are willing to sell their souls to the imagemakers.
"Hyde in Hollywood"
*** A brash young genius filmmaker with something to hide squares off against an ambitious gossip columnist in 1939 Hollywood.
CAST: Robert Joy, Keith Szarabajka
TIME: Tonight at 10 o'clock
CHANNEL: PBS channels 22 and 67