An uncommonly touching project

Preview: Showtime's `Ground' paints a sensitive portrait of homosexuality and small-town life.

January 29, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The concept behind the film was one of the more intriguing of the television season: Three gay playwrights explore homosexuality in three different decades in the same small town.

The result, "Common Ground," which premieres at 8 tonight on the Showtime cable channel, delivers on the promise with a touching and uncommonly wise film about gay identity and some of the dominant culture's most cherished values.

The trio of playwrights gathered for this project was remarkable: Tony Award winners Terrence McNally ("Kiss of the Spiderwoman" and "Ragtime") and Harvey Fierstein ("Torch Song Trilogy"), plus Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel ("How I Learned to Drive" and "The Baltimore Waltz").

Using the fictional small town of Homer, Conn., as the setting, the idea was that Vogel would tell a story from the 1950s, with McNally writing about the 1970s, and Fierstein talking about gay life today. Each tale would open and close in the town common, a park that housed a war memorial.

The narrator throughout is Johnny Burroughs, whose family has tended the common as far back as anyone can remember, raising and lowering the American flag each morning and evening, among other duties. In part one, "A Friend of Dorothy's," Johnny is played as a boy by Erik Knudsen. In parts two and three, "Mr. Roberts" and "Andy & Amos," he's played by Eric Stolz, as a Vietnam veteran who lost an arm in the war.

"A Friend of Dorothy," written by Vogel, is the most richly textured of the three. It has the depth and feel of a feature film. Brittany Murphy heads a cast that features fine supporting performances from Mimi Rogers, Jason Priestley and Helen Shaver.

Dorothy Nelson (Murphy) leaves Homer in the 1950s as a teen-ager to join the Navy where she meets a handsome young officer named Billy (Priestley). One night, Billy takes her to an "alternative bar," where Dorothy dances with a woman (Joanne Vannicola) and experiences the excitement of her first lesbian kiss.

But the bar is raided by military police, and Dorothy winds up with a dishonorable discharge for "sexual deviancy." Vogel's story examines the town's reaction to Dorothy when she returns to Homer.

McNally's script for part two, "Mr. Roberts," is just as strong, but suffers in the casting of Jonathan Taylor Thomas ("Home Improvement") in one of the two leads. Thomas plays Toby Anderson, a straight-A student and all-state swimmer headed for Harvard.

As Toby struggles with his sexual identity and the cruel taunts of his teammates, one of his teachers, Mr. Roberts (Steven Weber), wrestles with whether he should announce his own homosexuality and help the boy. In 1970s Homer, such an announcement will end any hope Roberts has of becoming school principal. Weber appreciates the contradictions and nuance of his character, but Thomas is one-dimensional, making Toby almost inaccessible.

Fierstein's "Andy & Amos" plays the most like television in that it is the lightest and sunniest of the three. It's about two gay men who have lived together for 16 years in a committed relationship deciding to have a marriage ceremony on the town common.

One of the men, Amos (James Le Gros) gets cold feet on the morning of the wedding and escapes to a favorite tree house to think his feelings through. The heart of the piece is the encounter there between Amos and his father, Ira (Ed Asner), a World War II veteran about to join other vets in protesting the marriage.

The common ground that the gay men and women in these stories share with those celebrated in the town's war memorial includes courage, honesty, loyalty, commitment and duty. Perhaps the best yardstick of the film's success is that you are generally too caught up in the stories themselves to think about such connections until the final credits.

`Common Ground'

When: Tonight at 8

Where: Showtime

In brief: Smart, sensitive look at gay life in a small town

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