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CRITIC AT LARGE

A New Day and Night for Blair Brown

August 22, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

NEW YORK — The number of television shows that have been returned by popular demand can be counted on a couple of chewed fingernails. The number of much-beloved programs that popular demand has failed to bring back is, on the other hand, very large. But cable has now entered the equation in a positive way.

"The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," which premiered on NBC in the summer of 1987, survived the network numbers racket for only two seasons. Yet it was beloved by critics and by quite decent-sized audiences, who responded to Jay Tarses' series about a single, independent-minded woman riding the pleasures, pains and perplexities of Manhattan life.

Those who appreciated the program's candor, charm and sensitivity included some executives at the Lifetime cable channel, to which "Molly Dodd" transferred last April. New shows for a second cable season will start shooting in February.

This is relieving news for all the admirers of the series and its resilient star, Blair Brown. Actors profess, not wrongly, an ability to play anything. But the fact is that some roles are a good deal more becoming than others, and what actors pray for is a particular congruence in spirit and understanding between the player and the part.

"Molly Dodd" was created for Brown by Tarses, a friend for years before the show was launched. "We used to talk about each other's lives a lot," Brown said one afternoon last week.

While it is folly to presume too many one-to-one match-ups between player and part, it seems clear that Brown and Dodd are, equally, free spirits with a taste for unconventionality, and that both are alternately tough-minded and vulnerable, having pushed themselves to the edge of nervous collapse. As Brown has said, she has tried all the current nostrums, up to and including Rolfing.

"Actually, I'm a very cynical person," Brown says, "but this last year has been so terrific I've had very little to complain about."

Brown finds marriage to be the death of romance, she says, and she does not, thus far, believe in it. Her long relationship with actor-director Richard Jordan produced a son, now 7, a second-grader who lives with Brown in Manhattan. Although the relationship ended, she and Jordan remain close and cordial.

At the moment, Brown is in rehearsal for "The Secret Rapture," a play by her close friend David Hare, which is a substantial hit at the National Theatre in London, already into its second cast.

The play, which Hare is directing, opens for what amounts to a preview run at Joe Papp's Shakespeare Festival on Sept. 8 and then moves to Broadway and the Barrymore Theatre for an extended run starting Nov. 2. "It's easier than an out-of-town tryout," Brown says. She will have to leave the cast in February to resume her other life as Molly Dodd.

She has also, during a hiatus from the series, made a feature film, "Strapless," similarly written and directed by Hare and shot in Britain. Co-starring Bridget Fonda and Bruno Ganz, it will be seen at the New York, Toronto and Telluride film festivals in search of an American distributor, which it does not have. Two firms that were interested in it, Atlantic and Island, have both, as Brown says, "gone bust in recent days."

She and Fonda play sisters living in London, she a doctor who has gone to London to work for the national health system "because that's the way she wants to practice medicine." Ganz enters her life, changing it in all the ways romantic love can: positively, negatively, chaotically, unpredictably. "In the larger texts," Brown says, "it's about politics and medicine."

Now that cable shows have become eligible for Emmys, Brown has received a nomination for her "Molly Dodd." "You're never supposed to admit that you care about awards. But that nomination meant so much to me, just because we're doing the show on cable now. It seemed to me it's so good for the business. It just confirms that there is an alternate network these days. And it's nice to know there's life after the Big Three."

Moving to cable meant a lower production budget, but not for the first time necessity became the mother of creativity. "We couldn't have as many sets," Brown says, "which meant writing longer scenes. And they made the show much fuller."

As the critics observed, a show that had been refreshing for its concern not with zowie exit lines but with nuances and the shadings of relationships and moments became even more admirable in its reversals of sitcom formulas.

By the bizarre logic of network thinking, "Molly Dodd" during its two NBC seasons was shot in Hollywood, although Molly lives in New York, as in actual fact do Brown and most of the cast members and all but one of the regular writers.

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