New York — Talk about double-headers! Casey Stengel and Alexander the Great, all in one evening, are really too much for any single human being to comprehend.
Yet there they are on public television on Wednesday: "Casey Stengel" (PBS, Wednesday, 8-9 p.m.) and "The Search for Alexander the Great" (PBS, starting Wednesday, 10-11 p.m., for four successive weeks, check local listings for premiere and repeats for both programs). Watch them both and you will find your personal bases glutted with language by the end of the evening.
You really gotta be there to get the full impact of the garrulous "clown prince of baseball." And you really gotta love Casey Stengel to appreciate fully this one-hour tribute, a series of in-his-own-words monologues, written and edited by Sidney and David Carroll and acted with subtle simplicity by Charles Durning. Another Stengel one-man show, starring Paul Dooley, got mixed reviews from New York, so you can see that the irrepressible Casey is not having his best season.
The anecdotes don't quite come off, the language rambles interminably, the reminiscences are quaintly meandersing, straight out of the unique milieu of American baseball. So it is the authentic Casey.
Says Casey as he apologizes for his lovingly (for some) rambling style: "Sometimes I get a little hard-of-speaking."
Well, every now and then I got a little hard-of-listening.
But the show does seem to capture the spirit and language of Casey as he traces his own career through 17 -- count 'em, 17 -- professional teams, including the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees and Mets.
And, oh yes, there is organ music. So if you provide your own popcorn, the only things missing are those waterlogged frankfurters.
If you can translate "Stengelese" and score yourself as one of the Casey cultists, you will love "Casey Stengel." But if you run a different base line, count "Casey Stengel" out at home plate.
Stengel verbalizes his basic philosophy in the show: "If you are a clown, that's a great thing if that's what you want to be. Go ahead and be a clown. But you better be able to catch that baseball, too."
And that is a philosophy all those responsible for "The Search for Alexander the Great" should have heeded. The miniseries can't catch.
It tries so hard to be everything to everybody that it turns out to be not quite anything to anybody.
a Time-Life Television/Video Arts TV production, the four-part miniseries seems to be one part "I, Claudius," one part Shakespeare, and one part Steve Allen's "Meeting of the Minds" -- with just a bit of Jacob Bronowski and Kenneth Clark thrown in for good measure.
It uses James Mason as narrator, often standing embarrassedly in the midst of the ruins of a Greek amphitheater, trying desperately to explain what has happened, is happening, and is about to happen on the TV screen.
Interspersed with his comments are dramatized portions of Alexander's life, with Alexander portrayed by Nicholas Clay; his mother, Olympias, by Jane Lapotaire; and his father, Philip, by Julian Glover. All of them seem to be utterly convinced that the confusing script by George Lefferts and Simon Raven is Shakespearean drama and constantly declaim the words with Shakespearean gusto , boldly if not convincingly.
Almost simultaneously, in the midst of all of this, there is a completely dispensable gimmick -- a royal tent party to which all those who knew Alexander have been invited. Sort of like a Hollywood party with a tent set up in the garden. Like Casey Stengel, they all reminisce interminably, reexamining their actions, only serving to further confuse an already confusing show.
But wait, there is more: Now and then, almost subliminally, there are authentic artifacts of the period, used mainly as props. It is only at the very end that Mason takes viewers on a simple tour of the treasures found in the recently discovered tomb of Philip II. Ah, one thinks, if only ambition had not taken them further. "The Search" obfuscates the history of "one of the most remarkable men who ever lived." It suffers the pangs of overambition -- but, ironically, that is the main thing it has in its favor. Intentions were honorable and valid -- the cinematography is lovely, the locations in Greece fascinating, the overall concept complex but interesting. But put it all together and the intellectually valid elements of the production interfere with one another, a grandiloquent Eden gone awry.
Says narrator Mason of the tent-party participants: "they are here now because only they can tell us what really happened when Alexander ruled the world." It is a conceit that fails, a theatrical convention that decorates an already overdecorated, overdramatized historical landscape.
For a comprehensible view of Alexander the Great and his unique place in history, I suggest viewers keep biographies by Plutarch and W. W. Tarn on their laps as they watch this grand, sweeping, colorful display of heroic words and images run amok.
Casey and Alexander, two utterly inique men, sharing one channel on Wednesday. I have the distinct feeling that nothing I write will dissuade Casey buffs or history buffs from watching the shows. And that is as it should be, because, despite my personal reservations, there is much worthwhile to see and learn from both.