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Television Review

'Club Land' Takes Assured Look at '50s Nightclubs

April 07, 2001|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

The late 1950s. Smoky rooms in New York City.

Bing-bang-boom comics in patent-leather shoes, flashing their cuffs and pinkie rings, square-cut white handkerchiefs peeking from their breast pockets. Comics with moist, glistening eyes sizing up the crowds, hoping the horn-rimmed Ivy Leaguers, the Hadassah dumplings, the literati, the salesmen from Milwaukee and their top-heavy hookers will double over with laughter. Hard-working, hard-joking comics, spritzing through their white-on-white shirts and shiny dark suits, dreaming of leaving behind the dives and becoming the next Shecky Greene.

Glints of this stand-up noir surface in Showtime's "Club Land," actor Steven Weber's densely textured, funny, ultimately haunting remembrance of what he absorbed as a kid when his father, like his father before him, was a talent agent with clients careening across the nightclub circuit.

Although memorably atmospheric, this ambience is merely backdrop for the volatile, eroding relationship between Stuey Walters (Weber) and his mean, string-bean of a father, Willie (a head-shaven Alan Alda), who together operate a struggling New York talent agency. Although the agency is Willie's life, it's a reluctant pit stop for insecure Stuey, who appears less enamored of "this stupid business" than the female night travelers he regularly beds down.

"Less banging and more booking," his father demands.

There's no trace in Willie of the tenderness and sentiment that Woody Allen gave his own two-bit New York agent in "Broadway Danny Rose." Instead, Willie is cold, detached and unsympathetic, at one point reducing to quivering jelly a comic ("this poor, sweaty schmuck, this putz . . .") Stuey brings in for an audition. Plus, his admonishing lectures come as often as his clients' one-liners and cheap sight gags. Remember the "Five L's," he tells Stuey: "Listen and learn, stay limber, don't linger, and use liniment if you have rheumatism like I do."

The old man is losing clients and his grip, though. And meanwhile, the death of Stuey's mother from polio when he was 11 somehow continues to come between him and his father, and he remains tormented by dreams, in black and white, of an unnamed woman in a swimming pool.

Although Alda gives you cause to wring Willie's neck, the true stars here are Weber's captivating script (polished by Murray Schisgal) and Saul Rubinek's excellent direction, its theatrical tone in some ways replicating the environment of a play. Also notable are David Hackl's production design, Rene Ohashi's camera work, David Buchbinder's jazzy score, and two grand cameos. One is by Louise Lasser as the mother of the schnook of an auditioner (David Deblinger) Willie lambastes, the other by Brad Garrett as the nasty comic who is Willie's biggest star.

Among the many ironies of "Club Land," though, none is greater than Weber--who wrote it and observed much of its realm as a child--never quite fitting into his own universe, his Stuey coming across as an Eagle Scout and pastel misfit in this troop of edgy, boisterous characters. It's Weber the writer who stands out.

* "Club Land" can be seen at 8 p.m. Sunday on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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