Monday, January 10, 1994

Review/Television; Back to Free-Spirited San Francisco of the 70's

With the six-hour "Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City," public television is doing precisely what it should be doing. This evening through Wednesday at 9 P.M., PBS is broadcasting a first-rate mini-series that commercial television wouldn't touch on a dare. In fact, "Tales of the City" comes to American television only because Channel 4 in Britain decided to produce it, getting some financial input from station KQED in San Francisco and the "American Playhouse" series, one of a handful of PBS entities still capable of showing some courage.

The setting is San Francisco in 1976. Mr. Maupin's characters -- part factual, part fictional -- began appearing that year in his San Francisco Chronicle newspaper columns. They became players in a print soap opera that was later collected into a series of best-selling books. Now, Richard Kramer, one of the senior and most accomplished writers on the series "Thirtysomething," has adapted, with remarkable fidelity, the first of the Maupin books.

Mr. Maupin is gay, and many, though hardly all, of the characters in his stories are gay or bisexual. Using the "I Am a Camera" technique of Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Maupin records what he sees and hears, then puts much of it under a fictional veneer (in this production he can be glimpsed briefly behind a window, pecking away at a typewriter as a scene unfolds). The upshot is a startlingly accurate snapshot of a particular place and time.

Rolling off the rebellious and permissive 1960's, these varied characters are still lurching through a world in which sex and drugs are casually taken for granted. With Vietnam having wound down, they are running out of causes. AIDS has yet to enter the wings. San Francisco, like most major cities but perhaps more so, is a place where young men and women can still think about finding themselves in a world of limitless possibilities. The Dorothy coming into this Oz, centered in a fabulous old apartment house on Russian Hill, is Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), a fresh-faced, intelligent, compassionate innocent from Ohio who quickly realizes that she is not in Cleveland anymore.

The other tenants of 28 Barbary Lane include Michael (Marcus D'Amico), a hopeless romantic forever looking for Mr. Right; Brian (Paul Gross), a tireless stud proving endlessly that he's irresistible to women; and Mona (Chloe Webb), just past 30 and thinking that it's time she had some security. These and the other denizens of Mr. Maupin's world wander separately or together through a world of bathhouses, elegant dinner parties, drag shows and society benefits. There is occasional nudity, lots of pot smoking, and even a scene in which two male lovers kiss quite warmly. If any of that is likely to bother you, stay away.

In fact, the dominating romance of this mini-series involves two people who might be considered, as they say, beyond their prime. Anna Madrigal, a charming bohemian fond of marijuana, and Edgar Halcyon, an old-line wealthy Republican, are played to perfection by Olympia Dukakis and Donald Moffat. She is the landlady, fluttering about like some bemused butterfly, convinced that "we are all citizens of Atlantis in some secret part of ourselves." Does Anna object to pets? "M'dear," she says, unhesitatingly, "I have no objection to anything." But like just about everybody else in these tales, Anna does have a secret, which becomes pretty obvious by midpoint.

On the whole, Mr. Maupin clearly loves his characters, each of whom, he has said, reflects some aspect of himself. The exceptions, seen only in a couple of short scenes, are several wealthy and snobbish homosexuals. One is portrayed by Ian McKellan, who does a wicked John Gielgud turn, imperiously summoning his butler at dessert time with the notification, "Harold, we're ready for the babas."

Cameo performances are scattered throughout the series. The familiar faces include Rod Steiger, Country Joe McDonald, Mary Kay Place, Nina Foch, McLean Stevenson and Paul Dooley. Alastair Reid, the Scottish director ("Traffik"), also throws in several references to Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," which was set in San Francisco. But the series rests squarely on the shoulders of the uniformly superb actors in the major roles. In addition to those mentioned, they are William Campbell, Thomas Gibson, Barbara Garrick and Stanley DeSantis. Far stronger on character than on plot, which too often gets carried away in a swirl of coincidence, Mr. Maupin's tales have been transformed from a good read into uncommonly fine television. American Playhouse Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City PBS, tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 (Channel 13 in New York). Directed by Alastair Reid; written by Richard Kramer, based on a book by Armistead Maupin; director of photography, Walt Lloyd; editor, David Gamble; costume designer, Molly Maginnis; music by John E. Keane; produced by Alan Poul for Propaganda/Working Title Productions for Channel 4 in association with American Playhouse and KQED San Francisco; Richard Kramer, Armistead Maupin, Sigurjon Sighvatsson and Tim Bevan, executive producers. Anna Madrigal . . . Olympia Dukakis Edgar Halcyon . . . Donald Moffat Mona Ramsey . . . Chloe Webb Mary Ann Singleton . . . Laura Linney Michael (Mouse) Tolliver . . . Marcus D'Amico Jon Fielden . . . William Campbell Beauchamp Day . . . Thomas Gibson.

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