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THIS 'HAMLET' A PRINCELY WORK.

Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

Shakespeare's plays get bounced about through sundry eras, sometimes because those mounting the production are relating the text of the play to the anachronistic era in which they have set it. And sometimes not. Mel Gibson's ``Hamlet'' was set in its original period, around 1100 when the historical incident Shakespeare dramatized transpired, while the recent ``Hamlet'' with Ethan Hawke and Bill Murray was set in the present day.

Campbell Scott - who co-adapts and directs tonight's production of ``Hamlet'' with Eric Simonson as well as producing and starring in it - has set his production vaguely in America, vaguely at the turn of the last century. This doesn't offer much in the way of comment on the advent of the 20th century, but it does place the story in a more accessible setting, yet one in which the poetic language doesn't feel too out of place.

Scott (``Big Night,'' ``The Spanish Prisoner''), in addition to making an invigorating Hamlet, has also assembled an impressive cast. He interprets his character as something of a glib and sardonic but disaffected prep-school grad who probably read a lot of bohemian literature and has eschewed his bourgeoise upbringing. His descent into madness at the treachery and injustice that fills his existence, first feigned and eventually genuine, is largely underplayed with an occasional theatrical flourish.

Jamey Sheridan is a smooth operator as Claudius, the uncle who has killed Hamlet's father and usurped both his throne and his wife; in a contemporary version, he'd play Claudius as a slick CEO. Blair Brown carries herself with an imperious, matronly air as Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, who wed Claudius before the body of her husband, the King of Denmark (where something is eternally rotten), was even cold. Roscoe Lee Brown gets almost as many of Shakespeare's best lines as Scott does as Polonius, the ill-fated father of Ophelia (LisaGay Hamilton, not given a lot to do here), Hamlet's ill-fated love. Well, just about everyone in this tale is ill-fated.

Scott keeps the proceedings moving efficiently with his crisp soliloquies delivered at nearly a motor-mouth pace; the language, except at the hands of a few bit players, is briskly and expressively delivered. (Fun fact: At Amazon.com, customers rank the Bard's ``Hamlet'' a mere 3 1/2 or four stars on a scale of one to five.) Though budget constraints are readily apparent from time to time, the three-hour production deserves attention; as Shakespeare himself wrote, ``Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.''

``HAMLET''

What: Adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy of murder, betrayal and madness.

The stars: Campbell Scott, Jamey Sheridan, Blair Brown, Roscoe Lee Brown, LisaGay Hamilton.

Where: Odyssey Network.

When: 7 tonight.

Our rating: Three and one half stars

TNT's 'David Copperfield' stands tall on its own

Tonight's TNT production of ``David Copperfield,'' which concludes Monday, is the second pass at Charles Dickens' favorite of his novels to grace American TV this year, following a ``Masterpiece Theatre'' adaptation in April. Its irresistibility is obvious - there are hissable villains (David's brutal stepfather, the unctuously predatory Uriah Heep), comic- relief characters (his eccentric Aunt Betsey, the verbose, luckless Micawber), ethereal objects of affection (fragile underachiever Dora, strong-willed and long-suffering Agnes).

There's sufficient misery to fill a couple of miniseries, and enough happy endings for an entire evening of prime time. The PBS version, thanks in part to a stronger all-star cast (Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen), was the more nuanced of the competing productions, integrating its comedy and tragedy more deftly. Tonight's effort is no shirker, however (along with ``The Runaway'' on CBS and ``Hamlet'' on Odyssey Network, it's tonight's third ambitious film from Hallmark Productions).

Boasting sumptuous production design by Michael Pickwoad and costumes by Joan Bergin, tonight's ``Copperfield'' relates the famous saga of the beleaguered yet resilient title character, who loses his parents early in his life and is cast out by his ruthless, unfeeling stepfather, first to a shabby boarding school and then to a London sweatshop. Along the way, David encounters a number of characters both friendly and fiendish.

His relatively easy adolescence occurs off screen, apparently giving young Copperfield time to shore up his energy to endure an equally difficult early adulthood. The same characters return to further enrich or exacerbate his existence. Through it all, Copperfield takes the breakneck turns of his fortunes with a curious equanimity.

TNT's adult David, Hugh Dancy, gives a more graceful performance than PBS' Ciaran McMenamin, though both prove to be rather on the reactive side. Despite Max Dolbey's best efforts, Daniel Radcliffe proved the better of the younger Davids in the ``Masterpiece Theatre'' version - he parlayed his success into the title role in the upcoming ``Harry Potter'' movie).

Michael Richards' turn as Micawber, whose schemes never seem to quite pan out, features some Kramer-ian schtick: He flinches madly whenever he closes a door on himself or leans back into a candle. Sally Field performs serviceably if broadly as Betsey, but an actress of her stature should've had a meatier role (Smith, in the earlier incarnation, made the part meatier).

At times, director Peter Medak and screenwriter John Goldsmith approach the proceedings with the sort of stuffy, bloodless tone of too many costume epics (the PBS production in general had more fun with the material). Still, it's a handsome and faithful adaptation, one that literature students assigned the hefty book will no doubt greatly appreciate in the coming years.

``DAVID COPPERFIELD''

What: Adaptation of the Dickens semi-autobiographical classic about a young man's strenuously difficult life.

The stars: Hugh Dancy, Michael Richards, Sally Field.

Where: TNT.

When: Part 1: 8, 10 and midnight tonight. Part 2: 8, 10 and midnight Monday. Both parts air together on Friday, Saturday and Dec. 24.

Our rating: Three stars

Natalie Cole's bio unusually frank and honest

As biopics go, ``Livin' for Love: The Natalie Cole Story'' is an uncommonly naked one and, for Cole herself, who executive-produced the movie and appears in it, it must represent a virtually purgative experience. Cole serves as an on-screen narrator throughout the film and, at about the 90-minute mark, she plays herself, which is something of a dubious strategic gambit (Theresa Randle was doing a capable job up until that point).

It's not that she can't handle the acting - she's fine, actually, with a particularly strong reaction upon hearing of one of the tragedies in her life - it's just that it's a jarring juxtaposition, particularly when we've seen her copiously and self-deprecatingly commenting on different aspects of her life already. You almost expect her to start commenting on her own performance.

Cole deals frankly with her drug abuse, but not in the simplistic ways most rise-and-fall-and-rise-again bios do, which is to show a character start drugs just before his or her downfall. She was able, to a certain degree, to operate under their influence; as for her first experience with heroin, she says with a laugh, she ``loved it.'' Nonetheless, the portrait Cole presents of herself on junk and cocaine is brutally unflattering.

Likewise, her sequences in rehab aren't the usual scenes of gritted teeth, clammy sweat and eyelids clamped shut - they deal with the baldly emotional baggage in her life that led her to try drugs in the first place. Of the countless drug films Hollywood has churned out over the years, this one feels like one of the more honest.

Otherwise, it's the usual celebrity biopic, with her upbringing with her beloved father Nat King Cole (James McDaniel), which obeys one of filmdom's dumbest rules - no one in a movie can cough without it portending a fatal disease. Her career takes off after his death, even though she's determined not to cash in on his name and her mother (Diahann Carroll) offers only reluctant support. Marvin Yancy (Randy J. Goodwin), the man who co-writes her hits and tries to rescue her from her own worst impulses, falls prey to drug use, as well.

Naturally, there's the usual dollop of celebrity biopic kitsch - Cole tearfully announces to an audience that someone close to her has died, then promptly starts belting out ``Our Love.'' Overall, though, ``Livin' for Love'' (an unfortunately trite title for a film that otherwise eschews triteness) is a cut above the usual TV bioflick.

``LIVIN' FOR LOVE: THE NATALIE COLE STORY''

What: Confessional biopic of the singer.

The stars: Natalie Cole, Theresa Randle, Diahann Carroll, James McDaniel, Randy J. Goodwin.

Where: NBC (Channel 4).

When: 9 tonight.

Our rating: Three stars

Ving Rhames brings heart to 'Holiday'

There are many aspects of the Showtime drama ``Holiday Heart'' that viewers may find hard to buy, but Ving Rhames' wonderful turn as the title character isn't one of them. Rhames plays a drag queen who has recently lost his lover and who one night rescues a woman and her daughter from her abusive, addicted boyfriend and moves them into his home. They soon become a tight-knit group, although Wanda (Alfre Woodard), the mother, is battling her own flirtations with crack.

So the story, directed by Robert Townsend from Cheryl L. West's adaptation of her play, doesn't always scan, particularly when Holiday allows Wanda's new boyfriend, a drug dealer named Silas (Mykelti Williamson), to also move into his house. And it certainly seems dubious at best when Holiday and Silas form an uneasy alliance when Wanda falls to addiction once again.

But the story is all about moral ambiguity and is endlessly leavened by scenes between Rhames and Jessika Quynn Reynolds, who plays Wanda's precocious 12-year-old daughter, Niki, scenes that variously exude warmth and wit and poignancy.

Rhames is a marvel as Holiday, as comfortable in his scenes charismatically leading a gospel choir as he is flirtatiously lip-syncing to old Supremes chestnuts; his performance alone makes the film worth noting. And his interplay with Williamson, no matter how contrived it feels narratively, is likewise entertaining just to see two capable actors bring their A game to B material. ``Holiday Heart'' is a Christmas tale for drag queens, crack addicts and fans of uneven storytelling but solid acting, an admittedly curious assemblage, to be sure.

``HOLIDAY HEART''

What: Drama about a drag queen adopting a troubled family.

The stars: Ving Rhames, Alfre Woodard, Mykelti Williamson, Jessika Quynn Reynolds.

Where: Showtime.

When: 8 tonight; also Wednesday and Dec. 23.

Our rating: Two and one half stars

'Runaway' suffers from an identity crisis and can't decide what it wants to be

``The Runaway'' is at least four movies crammed into one. It starts out, innocently enough, as a harmless adventure yarn about two young friends in 1940s Georgia, then veers into a grim whodunit about murders from years earlier, followed by a courtroom melodrama in which one of the young men is accused of murder. Through it all, it's a fairly heavy-handed civil rights drama.

Alas, none of these movies is handled with skill or grace. Dean Cain stars as the recently installed sheriff of a small town who tries to make sense of his community's flagrant racism while he tries to solve the sundry murders and make time with a comely widow woman; poet Maya Angelou has a bewildering bit part as Conjure Woman, who spouts pseudo-mystical, life-affirming mumbo-jumbo. Cardboard characterizations and by-the-numbers plotting suggest this should've been called ``To Bore a Mockingbird.''

``THE RUNAWAY''

What: Drama about race relations in 1940s Georgia.

The stars: Dean Cain, Debbi Morgan, Maya Angelou, Cody Newton, Duane McLaughlin.

Where: CBS (Channel 2).

When: 9 tonight.

Our rating: Two stars

Nothing 'Special' to see here

When we first see Andy Dick in the Fox Family Channel comedy ``Special Delivery,'' he's sporting a clothespin on his nose. The reason soon becomes readily apparent - he's trying to block out the stink of the script.

Comedian Dick - whose tabloid life would seem to make for an ill fit with the Fox Family Channel (good thing kids don't read the Enquirer) tries way too hard to make this mess work, with a series of pratfalls and wacky high jinks that suggests a pauper's Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler. He stars as Lloyd, an inept employee at an adoption service who is asked to deliver an Indonesian infant to a Connecticut family.

Naturally, nothing works out right - Lloyd, in a tiresome redux of an ancient gag, loses the baby at the airport - but incredibly, the family on the receiving end forgives him and even finds him adorable. Except for the apoplectic pop-to-be, who assumes the Ben Stiller role in this hash and endures all manner of humiliation just because he expects people to be nominally competent.

The gags are nonexistent and the plotting is so insultingly convoluted that my 10-year-old stepdaughter declared this ``the worst thing I've ever seen.'' This, from someone who heretofore considered Barney the Dinosaur her sworn enemy.

``SPECIAL DELIVERY''

What: Comedy about an inept adoption-service employee winning the heart of a family trying to adopt.

The stars: Andy Dick, David Lewis, Megan Leitch.

Where: Fox Family Channel.

When: 8 tonight.

Our rating: One star

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1) Blair Brown stars as Gertrude, mother of the Prince of Denmark (played by Campbell Scott) in the classic Shakespearean tragedy ``Hamlet,'' at 7 tonight on the Odyssey Network.

(2) Hugh Dancy is the title character and Emily Hamilton is Agnes Wickfield in TNT's two-part production of the Dickens classic ``David Copperfield.''

(3) COLE

(4) Two young friends are torn apart by racism in ``The Runaway,'' tonight on CBS.
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Dec 10, 2000
Words:2238
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