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TV REVIEW

NBC Puts 'London Suite' Through a 'Seinfeld' Filter

September 14, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER

Like a bandwagon knocking down everything in its path, NBC's "Must See TV" campaign has even colonized the world of Neil Simon, as evidenced by his television adaptation of his play "London Suite," on--natch--NBC.

The news here isn't so much that Simon has extended his "Suite" series (beginning with "Plaza Suite," then "California Suite") to the small screen but rather that the cast for "London Suite" is a who's who of NBC heavy-hitters: "Seinfeld's" Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards; "Frasier's" Kelsey Grammer; "The Single Guy's" Jonathan Silverman; and "3rd Rock From the Sun's" Kristen Johnston.

Practically the only thing missing here is the "Friends" cast strutting through the movie's primary setting, the Grosvenor Hotel, with the Peacock itself in tow.

Like the earlier "Suite" plays, "London" moves between four situations, ranging in mood from near-bathos to the ridiculous. In between those ranges are also some fine, smart comedy moods, generated mostly by Louis-Dreyfus as a newlywed distraught over her new husband (Silverman), who she believes has left her, and Madeline Kahn as a shop-aholic who finds herself going on a theater date with a Scottish fellow (Richard Mulligan) who snorts when he laughs and drives a fast car.

The latter is one of "London's" weakest, silliest links, but Kahn shows her comic genius by willing the situation to ironic life. Of the "Must See TV" tie-ins, Louis-Dreyfus works by far the best, extending her usual man-trouble dilemmas on "Seinfeld" into an aria of brilliant timing and borderline insanity.

Alas, Louis-Dreyfus' "Seinfeld" pal, Richards, is badly abused here in more ways than one. Since Richards' physical gifts are special, and useful only when he's mobile, it's an act of cruel perversity by director Jay Sandrich to have Richards play Mark, a tennis fanatic whose back goes out on him, rendering him virtually paralyzed for most of his time on-screen. It's like shooting Fred Astaire from the neck up.

Grammer, with Patricia Clarkson of "Murder One," is marooned in one of the droopiest, most maudlin situations Simon has ever written, as he plays Clarkson's gay divorced husband with life-threatening news.

The revelations Simon builds into this and his other mini-plots are hardly worth concealing, but suffice it to say that disease and death are not Simon's best subjects. He doesn't feel them genuinely, not as he feels the growing panic that visually builds up in Louis-Dreyfus' eyes when she senses her world is crumbling around her.

Or, to put it in "Must See TV" terms, Simon would be a great guest writer on "Seinfeld." Just keep him away from "ER."

* "London Suite" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on NBC (Channel 4).

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