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HOWARD ROSENBERG

There's Nothing Trying About 'Trying Times'

October 19, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Get ready for a springy, rosy, healthy, wickedly droll and whimsical comedy anthology from KCET. "Trying Times" is treat time.

It's a gathering of gifted actors, writers and directors--many whose careers have previously crossed--in a short series that laughs at what creator/producer Jon S. Denny terms the routine "small terrors of the universe."

There is nothing routine--or trying--about "Trying Times." A tribute to KCET, these six weekly half-hours on PBS are slightly bent, straying refreshingly off center while attacking life's minor misfortunes with therapeutic wit and literacy at 10 p.m.

The first and perhaps best of these expanded vignettes arrives tonight on Channel 28.

Written by Beth Henley and Budge Threlkeld and directed by Jonathan Demme, "A Family Tree" is a hilarious trifle about a young woman named Kara Dimly who barely survives her first encounter with her future in-laws. And they barely survive her.

The family immediately experiences disaster after disaster following the arrival of the earnest but woeful, accident-prone Kara, who is played with charming klutziness by Rosanna Arquette.

Kara's fiance (John Stockwell) has brought her home to meet his strange relatives, and an odd lot they are. His mother (Hope Lange) is eccentric and resentful, his father (Robert Ridgely) deeply troubled, and his warring sister and brother-in-law (Tracy Brooks-Swope and David Byrne) a marital calamity.

Their evening with Kara becomes truly memorable--and almost fatal.

There are no clashing cymbals or thunderous flourishes here. This is merely small, unpretentious TV at its most luminous and resourceful, one of those rare sweet moments where all the elements fit perfectly.

The production is staged with verve and style. Demme's varied directing career ranges from such successful theatrical features as "Melvin and Howard" and "Something Wild" and the Talking Heads documentary "Stop Making Sense" to the "American Playhouse" production of "Who Am I This Time?" He adds some satiric touches to tonight's clever Henley/Threlkeld script, using a hand-held camera and screeching horror music to punctuate the perils of Kara. As a bonus, he gets fine performances from the cast.

Almost as appealing is next week's segment--Wendy Wasserstein's "Drive, She Said," starring Teri Garr as a history professor who loses her man to a hot-panted, hot-rodding TV actress who dresses and looks remarkably like Daisy of "The Dukes of Hazzard." In fact, the Duchess of Hazzard, as she's called, is played by Catherine Bach herself.

The nondriving professor tries to out-duchess the duchess by taking driving lessons and drastically changing her wardrobe. Directed by Sheldon Larry, it's very, very funny, and Garr is a dream as the self-effacing heroine.

The following week brings "Get a Job," with monotonic Steven Wright a bit ponderous in Earl Pomerantz's amusingly written story about a 30-year-old man whose lack of ambition puts him at odds with traditional society. Check out Catherine O'Hara as the outcast's careerist dream girl.

The first month of "Trying Times" is rounded out by "Bedtime Story," the sleepless saga of an insomniac who is kept awake even by the ticking of his girlfriend's biological clock as she snoozes beside him. Yes, it's a fantasy, an engaging one directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and co-written by Renee Shafransky and Spalding Gray, who also stars as the sleepless one.

Jessica Harper plays his girlfriend, but the character to watch is a Gypsy fortune teller (Anne Ramsey).

Each of these light, breezy stories is sandwiched between a prologue spoken by the hero or heroine and an epilogue with all characters giving a status report on their lives. Expect silver linings.

The optimistic, triumph-over-adversity theme threading the six episodes leads to a certain tidy predictability, but the stories leave you grinning and fulfilled. On "Trying Times," all roads lead to satisfying endings.

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