John Cheever's first teleplay - a parody of sitcoms
''A celebration of the endurance of human relationships'' is the way John Cheever describes his fi2st original teleplay.Skip to next paragraph
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But what he calls ''the universal loneliness of mankind'' is a topic about he also writes about. ''Indeed, I am quite naked to loneliness,'' this vaguely saddened, sandy haired, thoughtful, distracted but qet intensely involved author says while lunching in the dining room of his charmingly decaying old hotel overlooking New York's exclusive Gramercy Park, removed from the chaoc f midtown New York City's pre-Christmas rush. The key to the locked, private park is available only to residents of the high-rent area.
We are talking about ''The Shady Hill Kidnapping'' (PBS, Tuesday, 9 p.m., check local listing the first in a weekly series of dramatic, comedy, and musical productions written or adapted for television by leading American writers. This ''American Playhouse'' series is a collaboration of four public TV stations - KCET/Los Angeles, WGBH/Boston, WNET/New York, and South Carolina ETV.
''Shady Hill'' is Mr. Cheever's first original teleplay - but there have been adaptations of his works on TV. Although Mr. Cheever insists that the play is a serious attempt to portray a true segment of our society, at the same time it is a literate, ironic, satiric parody of commercial television's stuation comedies, directed with loving derision by America's leading sitcom director, Paul Bogart of ''All in the Family'' fame.
Mr. Cheever feels that the closing narration in ''Shady Hill,'' which he reads himself is ''counterpoint.'' He lovingly quotes some of his own text: ''. . . the universal loneliness of mankind . . . our kind . . .'' and he describes the commuter's homecoming as having ''a feeling of achievement . . . nearly as old as the fall of darkness. . . .''
The family, in this case, is a suburban group. Instead of Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton, we have George Grizzard and Polly Holliday, both in a snit when their son wanders off and is taien under the wing of a neighbor selling the family sailboat off her front lawn. The child is presumed kidnapped and the basic story involves efforts of the family to explain it to the police (the station house is like a multiwindowed post office), to satisfy a phony kidnap note, to deal with a town celebration, to resolve temporarily their internecine bickering. As in some sitcoms, the plot is slight, devious, unsatisfying, but somehow inexplicably engrossing.
Between the acts there are satiric commercials, delivered just a bit heavy-handedly by Celeste Holm. The Cheever-written commercials hold their own progressive story line and are just as amusing as most of the commercials on network TV, but carried just a few steps farther.
''Shady Hill'' is an ''in'' joke which can be accepted totally on its surface. But Mr. Bogart missed a few tricks by cleaning up the sitcom format - instead of inserting the commercials i to the action with no interruption, he separates them by briefly going to black in between; he also eliminates the canned studio laughter which usually cues viewer reactigns.
But ''Shady Hill'' is a delightful experiment in tongue-in-cheek TV drama. It succeeds even as it fails - because after all it is mimicking a genre of questionable literacy. If viewers find themselves a bit ambivalent about the thought-provoking drama, it is only natural, because it must be judged not only for what it accomplishes but for what it attempts to do. It is a stimplating adventure in the new literature of television.
At the lunch table, Mr. Cheever is very eager to hear the interviewer's opinion, making it clear that he is just a bit insecure about his place in TV. Why did he write the commercials into the script?
''In the history of art patronage, I don't think the imbalance between the wealth of the patron and the contribution of the artist has ever been so unequal. It's important to establish the role commercials play on TV and-if I am going to write a TV drama, I'm also going to write the commercials, which have be'ome such an integral part of TV drama.''The relationship between the commercial and the narrative is just as important as anything that goes on among the characters in the narrative. I would very much like to write a new TV script in which the commercial is given an even greater importance.