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January 23, 1994|JOE LEYDON | Joe Leydon is film critic for The Houston Post

HOUSTON — It's bad enough that playwright Hamish Partt must take time from rehearsals and rewrites to lunch with pompous twits at a trendy L.A. eatery. What's worse, what's almost unbearable, is that he can't even get his waiter to find the right kind of Scotch to help him through the long afternoon's blather.

"Look," Partt says in a barely contained frenzy of polite frustration, "I'll just have an ordinary Scotch whiskey, please. Large, with two lumps of ice. An ordinary whiskey! Eh?"

And then, just when Partt appears ready to lunge for the throat of his departing waiter, someone shouts, "Cut!"

Yes, that's right, it's only a movie. Or, to be more specific, a made-for-television production, "Unnatural Pursuits," co-produced by Britain's BBC and America's A&E network. But it's not Los Angeles. Rather, it's Cent'Anni Ristorante in Houston, gussied up for the afternoon with just a touch of West Coast ambience, and crowded with the cameras and lighting equipment of an Anglo-American production crew.

The director is Christopher Morahan, whose credits range from the tony literacy of "The Jewel in the Crown" to the droll lunacy of "Clockwise" (with John Cleese). The playwright's table companions are actors Bob Balaban and Paul Guilfoyle. And that unshaven, unmade bed of a fellow who can't get his Scotch, is Alan Bates, the formidable British actor who, at 59, still has the twinkle in his eye and the fire in his gut of a thoroughgoing professional who loves, and lives for, his work.

Bates is especially pleased to once again savor dialogue provided by Simon Gray, the playwright who gave him one of his finest roles, the droll but dissipated university don of "Butley," which Bates played to great acclaim on stage and screen in the early '70s.

"Actually, this is the seventh time I've done one of his scripts," Bates says during a break between camera setups. "I love his language--there's a lightness that hides a lot of comment, a lot of depth.

"This one, it's a very humorous journey. But all along the way there are certain little signs that all is not as it should be. ... The darkness creeps up on you. It's always lurking, until it suddenly shoots forward."

"Unnatural Pursuits" is at least partially autobiographical, inspired by Gray's international misadventures while struggling to mount a production of "The Common Pursuit," his West End and off-Broadway triumph of a few years back. (The play, and the people involved with it, have been given different names in the teleplay.) The drama begins with Partt reacting to the London opening of his latest play, "Unnatural Pursuits," which is damned with faint praise by critics and largely ignored by audiences. Naturally, Partt jumps at the chance to continue working on the play at a small, Equity Waiver theater in Los Angeles.

The L.A. production is a success, sort of, but not entirely satisfying. So Partt moves on to Dallas, where a major regional theater wants to mount "Unnatural Pursuits." After that, it's off to New York, where Partt hopes to take off-Broadway by storm.

At each stop along the way, however, the playwright's drinking gets worse, and his alcohol-enhanced hallucinations become more vivid. He moves closer, and closer, to the edge.

"What I like the most about this character," Bates says, "is his ability to enjoy even the most desperate situations. Simon manages to invest his characters with such mischief, a mischievousness that I love. An ability to appreciate the ridiculousness of it all, if you like.

"And I think it's a very pleasurable thing to act: a character with an awareness, who can apply wit to a situation. Sometimes it's a despairing wit, but, oh well ..."

Budget limitations forced producer Kenith Trodd ("The Singing Detective," "Pennies From Heaven") into, if not despair, then desperately inventive dollar-stretching.

"This is the first time that A&E has participated with the BBC in something that has such a large American content," Trodd says. But even with the A&E investment, making a three-hour production with locations in London, Los Angeles, New York and Dallas proved to be too much of a challenge.

"I really couldn't afford to go to L.A.," Trodd says, "because of the horrendous cost of filming there."

On the other hand, Trodd discovered it would be easy to capture what director Morahan calls "the mall feeling" of L.A. in the Texas metropolis of Houston, just 250 miles away from Dallas. Which is how Houston, which often is faked in Los Angeles, wound up doubling for L.A.--for a change.

True, there were the pressures of financial and temporal limitations. "But I have found, very often, that pressure works," Bates says, "as long as it isn't too relentless. It sharpens people's wits, and makes you think on the spot. You do not indulge yourself, you don't waver between two attitudes. You trust your instincts."

"Unnatural Pursuits" airs Sunday at 5 and 9 p.m. on Arts & Entertainment.

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