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On View : Miller Time on TNT : THE PLAYWRIGHT PICKS ONE OF HIS LESSER-KNOWN DRAMAS FOR 'SCREENWORKS'

August 22, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Renowned playwright Arthur Miller's Depression-era drama 'The American Clock" has never received the recognition of his "Death of a Salesman," "All My Sons" or "The Crucible." But when Michael Brandman, executive producer of TNT's "Screenworks," asked Miller which of his plays he'd liked adapted for the writers' showcase, Miller chose "American Clock."

The playwright, Brandman explains, "saw an immediate comparison between what the events and times of the Depression era were and what was happening in America today. He saw this was a complete metaphor for what was going on in this country now. Apart from the fact that the piece was somewhat autobiographical, he was still more interested in having it mounted because of the relevance he saw in it."

"American Clock," which premieres Monday, utilizes fictional and true-life characters in overlapping stories that offer a panoramic view of America from 1929 to 1939. The piece focuses on the Baumlers, a rich New York Jewish family who lose everything during the Depression. Two-time Oscar-nominee Mary McDonnell stars as Rose Baumler, John Rubinstein as her husband Moe and Loren Dean as their son Lee.

The ensemble cast also features David Strathairn as Huntington, an investor who managed not to lose his money, Jim Dale, Joanna Miles, Estelle Parsons and Miller's daughter, Rebecca Miller. John Randolph and Darren McGavin, respectively, play the contemporary Lee and Huntington who serve as on-screen narrators. Tony Award-winning Frank Galati ("Grapes of Wrath") wrote the screenplay; Bob Clark ("Porky's," "Tribute") directed.

Miller opted not to write the screenplay. Instead, Brandman says, he wanted to work with a collaborator to "bring some fresh ideas to the concept of adaptation to film. Frank Galati was clearly everyone's first and only choice."

"American Clock" went through many incarnations during the 1980s, including a production at the Mark Taper Forum in 1984. Galati was impressed with the production he saw in London. "Different directors worked on it and reshaped it," Galati says. "The production in London was especially pleasing to Miller because it was very musical. It was really a vaudeville. The play was pruned quite a bit."

Galati jumped at the opportunity to work with Miller. "He's a total genius and certainly the greatest living American playwright," he says. Galati read several Miller versions of "American Clock" and spent time with the playwright. It took two years to get the screenplay in its final form.

"Our biggest problem was trying to find a way to handle the narration on camera, given the panoramic scope of the story," Galati says. Miller, Brandman and Galati decided the older Lee and Huntington characters would introduce the various vignettes and times shifts "because what Miller wanted to do was not just write the story of one family, but of the whole country. So you really got a sense of the character of America as it underwent the tragedies."

"American Clock" is McDonnell's first project since winning an Oscar nomination this year for best actress (John Sayles' "Passion Fish"). Miller is a playwright she's passionate about.

"The very first play I ever did in my life was 'The Crucible,' " recalls McDonnell. Dressed in a vintage black brocade evening dress studded with rhinestones, the actress waits in a small rehearsal room to shoot a scene in which Rose goes out on the town with Moe just before the stock market crash of 1929.

"I just auditioned in college and got cast as one of the screaming girls," McDonnell says. "It changed my life. I haven't done Arthur Miller since."

When McDonnell saw "American Clock" off-Broadway in the early '80s, she had a difficult time relating to it. That's not the case now. "When I read it again--what was that, two months ago?--it was so much clearer to me that we are closely identified to what Arthur is seeing in the past," McDonnell says. "He also was projecting. So now, it's so much more timely than it was because we were not aware 10 years ago the way we are now."

Despite the hardships families like the Baumlers endured, the Depression actually brought relatives closer together. "Ethnicity started to develop," McDonnell says. "From the beginning, my character doesn't even speak with much of a Jewish accent. By the end of it, she's sitting in a Brooklyn brownstone with the windows and doors shut in the heat, playing cards with her nieces and sister. They're all are sort of Yiddish. This whole ethnic feeling developed out of people being forced back into those quarters. In my opinion, there's something quite beautiful about that."

McDonnell's thrilled that TNT is exposing viewers to the work of one of America's living legends. "We've done everything we can to eliminate culture, other than pop culture," she says wistfully. "Just the opportunity to try and create or resurface the culture--it's far better that it's done on TV than as a feature. If this was in the movie houses, those people who don't know Arthur Miller, who need desperately to know one of the great American playwrights, would never go."

"Arthur Miller's The American Clock" airs Monday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m.; Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and on Aug. 29, 31 and Sept. 2 .

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