`Open Admissions' works well on TV. Jane Alexander stars in drama set in classroom

Open Admissions CBS, tomorrow, 9-11 p.m. Stars: Jane Alexander, Michael Beach, Estelle Parsons, Dennis Farina. Director: Gus Trikonis. Writer: Shirley Lauro. Executive producers: Stevie Phillips and Thom Mount, in association with Viacom Productions. One of the best things to emerge for TV viewers from the recent writers' strike is the early scheduling of the original drama ``Open Admissions,'' completed before the strike. Under ordinary circumstances it might have languished in inventory for a long time. Or, even worse, been scheduled opposite the Seoul Olympics.

``Open Admissions'' is exactly the kind of timely drama that television frequently claims it strives to produce but often fails to do successfully. Many a good premise is compromised by lowest-common-denominator dialogue, and action for the sake of action. Not so with this teleplay, adapted by writer Shirley Lauro from her own stage play.

It focuses squarely and honestly on the problem of open university admissions - a process by which students whose grades would not ordinarily qualify them for college are nonetheless allowed to enter.

The system is in effect in many inner-city colleges in large cities such as Chicago (where this drama is set) and New York (where the City University of New York refused to allow the film to be shot).

But admissions isn't all that the drama focuses on. The filmmakers recognize that teachers are not automatons but rather human beings with personal problems that can affect their professional performance, just as students' problems at home can affect their classroom performance.

``Open Admissions'' is about the interaction of people facing such problems; the politics of education; and the overriding teaching difficulties caused by well-meaning reformers who initiate educational improvements but neglect to provide for follow-through, thereby leaving the would-be beneficiaries of affirmative action stranded.

Calvin, played with pathetic intensity by Michael Beach, recognizes that he deserves F's, rather than the B's he's getting, in speech class. He tells his teacher, Ginny, ``This is supposed to be my big break, and you ain't teaching me nothing.''

Ginny, played with exquisite reserve by Jane Alexander, is concerned with her ambition to move to a teaching job in an Ivy League school, and doesn't want her students to fail.

Director Gus Trikonis orchestrates the play like an exquisite music recital: Calvin's brassy, harsh, hysterical style is counterpointed by Ginny's calm, restrained intellectual responses. The interplay is stunning and electric.

In a climactic, violent confrontation, Ginny tells Calvin frankly, ``You'll always be second-class,'' as he wails that he is being treated condescendingly.

But ultimately the two resolve to repair the damage they have done to each other's emotions and, in the process, to learn from each other. That process starts with Ginny teaching Calvin how to say ``ask'' rather than ``aks.'' ``Ask, and it shall be given,'' she says.

``Open Admissions'' is not only intellectually stimulating; it is a rousing entertainment. When it ended, I found myself wishing to learn more about the two people - how they will fare in the future at home and in school. What a fine innovative and uplifting series it would make!

How about it, CBS?

A chat with Jane Alexander

In the borrowed subterranean office of Theodore Mann, director of ``The Night of the Iguana,'' I chat with Jane Alexander, who has been starring in the Circle in the Square production.

``This drama [``Open Admissions''] is an indictment of many educational systems today that are simply not working,'' she says. ``Open admissions is just one of them. You can't just start something like that and not provide the funds for follow-up counseling, which is absolutely necessary.'' Ms. Alexander does not, however, believe that such systems should be abandoned without a fair trial. ``After all,'' she points out, ``many people who objected to busing at the start are now admitting that the very areas in which kids have been bused for 20 years are the most successfully integrated today.''

Alexander does not identify with Ginny: ``She's a lousy teacher. The idea that she would give those undereducated kids assignments in Shakespeare interpretation is ludicrous. As an actress who has studied Shakespeare, I've learned that you don't start people off with something so difficult.'' She believes that Ginny is learning to recognize her responsibilities as a teacher and that, with a sharpening of her skills, will also come a strengthening of her commitment.

She feels strongly that the drama can make a contribution. ``I would like to see more honor given to teachers in our society. And more honor for a good education for everybody, from the ground up. What's honored in the culture is going to be cultivated more.

``This play makes it clear that you just can't create a good idea and throw it at the people involved. Each person must have counseling so he knows where he should be. All that boy in the drama wanted was to know what he didn't know and how to go about learning it.''

Alexander and her husband, Ed Sherrin, have formed a production company and are right now offering a one-hour drama series to the networks. But she is wary about the problems involved: ``Management often gives you a last-minute OK and not enough time to prepare to do a series properly.''

She laughs when asked if she will play a noble person in the series and is amused by the suggestion that she is perceived by casting directors as a long-suffering, noble type. ``Mary Backstage, Noble Wife'' is the way Bob and Ray used to put it.

``But don't forget that I played Calamity Jane and Hedda Hopper, and they were certainly not noble. But after all, when you play Eleanor Roosevelt, as I did, how can you avoid having the mantle of nobility thrown upon you? I didn't make her inspirational; she was inspirational.'' She says her agent tells her that some scripts are coming through with a noble character identified as ``a Jane Alexander type.''

``Maybe I'll have to start turning down Jane Alexander roles,'' she says. Then, she smiles ... nobly, of course.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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