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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Age-Old Friends': A Compelling Drama on Agonies of Aging : Television: Hume Cronyn and Vincent Gardenia play two elderly friends who valiantly battle the downward slide.

December 16, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Wow! HBO tonight gives us the performance of the season in the story of the season. Hume Cronyn and "Age-Old Friends' are that outstanding.

The 8 p.m. drama pairs Cronyn and Vincent Gardenia as residents of a home for the relatively affluent elderly, where "slowing up" is a euphemism for that greatest of scourges, mental decay. For John Cooper (Cronyn) and Michael Aylott (Gardenia), youth is ancient history and the fountain of age is now drying up as well, leaving them terrified. It's not physical death they fear as much as surviving with a dead brain.

To exercise and stimulate their minds, they play chess, try to recall the starting lineup of the 1937 New York Giants and demean those who patronize them because of their age.

"This is all I have left," says the arthritic, but acutely bright Cooper, pointing to his head. "The rest of me doesn't work." It's the opposite for Aylott, still physically fit, but sadly slipping into the state of mental confusion he and Cooper call "Zombieland."

"Between the two of us, we make one pretty healthy person," Aylott jokes. It's a nice thought, two aging friends fitting together like puzzle pieces, leaning on each other and needing each other to be complete. In this way, "Age-Old Friends" is a touching affirmation of friendship. There is much more here than warmth and sentiment, however.

Of the two men, Cooper is the one we come to know most intimately, a room-bound widower with few joys beyond conversing with Aylott, flirting with a young nurse (Michele Scarabelli), needling a cleaning lady (Esther Rolle) and doting on his unseen teen-age grandson. The boy no longer accompanies his mother on her visits to Cooper, making these stiff monthly encounters between the old man and his estranged daughter (Cronyn's actual daughter, Tandy Cronyn) more excruciating than ever.

Cooper is a gorgeous piece of acting by Cronyn. See the George Burns shuffle. See the surfacing anxiety, the complexity, the ambiguity. Here is a man of stabbing, mean-spirited wisecracks, someone who punishes others--including his own daughter--for his own torment. But here also is a man of compassion and loyalty, blowing on the spark of life in his failing friend, Aylott, who is beautifully played by Gardenia. In battling to withhold Aylott from Zombieland, Cooper is as inspiring as he is irritating. Cronyn is simply inspiring.

Caringly directed by Allan Kroeker, "Age-Old Friends" is at once devilishly funny and heartbreaking. Although threaded by the caustic Cooper's dark, slashing, bitter wit--at times so lethal you laugh out loud--this is no comedy. The seed of the humor is pain and desperation, which those fine actors Cronyn and Gardenia make you feel so deeply.

Things move too swiftly as "Age-Old Friends" nears its conclusion, and there's a U-turn that seems abrupt. Otherwise, this is scintillating work.

Adapted by Bob Larbey from his play, "A Month of Sundays," the story of Cooper and Aylott is society's fearsome nightmare, an aching depiction of what, for many, is the inevitable: aging that leads to incapacitation, dependence and loneliness.

It's a universal theme, and nowadays a familiar one, but one rarely expressed as richly and compellingly.

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