TV loosely adapts `The Two Mrs. Grenvilles'

The Two Mrs. Grenvilles NBC, Sunday and Monday, 9-11 p.m. Starring Ann-Margret, Claudette Colbert, Stephen Collins. Writer: Derek Marlowe, from the Dominick Dunne novel. Director: John Erman. Producer: Preston Fischer. ``The Two Mrs. Grenvilles'' is a totally entertaining disappointment.

The best-selling novel by Dominick Dunne on which it is based was a caustic critique on the hypocrisy of high society even though the book masqueraded as a snippy, snappy lesson in upperclass-manship and was punctuated with a gruesome murder.

It was fun, readable, and informative, if slightly repugnant.

The miniseries, which is very loosely based on the same actual case, turns the book and the story into a stylish Ross Hunterlike movie of the 1950s. Its peek into the life style of the rich and famous is just about as incisive as the TV series with that name. And it can't decide whether or not it is a murder tale.

Ann-Margret plays a scheming, manipulative small-town showgirl who maneuvers her way into the life of a wealthy scion of a moneyed New York family, tires of him and the confining life, and fights her way out through a tragic ``accident.''

The most fascinating part of the book was her step-by-step induction into the intricacies of wealthy living, from which spoon to use at dinner to how to dress and speak and fit into the pattern of veddy-correct uniformity. The miniseries gives only a hint of that.

Much of the effectiveness of the drama depends on the adversarial relationship of the two Mrs. Grenvilles - the newly arrived Ann-Margret and the mother-in-law, played by Claudette Colbert.

Ann-Margret manages the ambivalent role with a superbly crafted portrayal combining callousness and vulnerability, although she is most effective when overtly nasty.

Unfortunately, veteran actress Colbert does not seem quite up to the role. She is so docile in her monotone delivery of lines that it is hard to believe she could stand up to the fiery Ann-Margret in any way.

Stephen Collins, as the young Mr. Grenville, plays the role with a skillful blend of innocence and sophistication worthy of Robert Montgomery, who might have won the role if a film version had been made in earlier years.

That version, of course, would have starred Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford as the young Mrs. Grenville and stern Lucille Watson as the older woman.

In this version, nobody seems rich or poor enough, upper- or lower-class enough, nice or nasty enough, trashy or tasteful enough. Certainly nobody is allowed to be calculating enough - even Ann-Margret, who teeters on the edge of unadulterated shrewdness several times, only to be pulled back into out-of-character tastefulness by director and scriptwriter.

All of the actors, by the way, seem about 20 years too old for their parts.

``The Two Mrs. Grenvilles'' is a stylish, juicy, upper-class soap opera, whose writer never got straight whether its main characters are meant to be heroes or villains. It can't even decide whether it is a mystery story or a sociological study. So it tries to provide a bit of both.

It manages to be merely a solid entertainment. But that's not bad either, is it?

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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