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You Heard It Here Last: I Review A 35-Year-Old TV Special
May 3, 2017  | By David Bianculli  | 43 comments
 

The recent death of filmmaker Jonathan Demme reminded me of one of my favorite early works of his – a comedy-drama special made for TV in 1982, and a show which most obituary writers and columnists had overlooked completely. But I thought, partly because of that, it warranted a second look…

The work in question was an adaptation of a 1961 Kurt Vonnegut short story called Who Am I This Time?, reprinted in his memorable short-story collection Welcome to the Monkey House. Demme, a very young director with few credits at the time, directed it, as one of the Season 1 offerings of a new, brilliant PBS anthology series called American Playhouse.

Who Am I This Time? is about two timid young people who become lovers, and soulmates, thanks to a passion for plays, and for community theater. It’s a love story, and a fable, and it’s quietly beautiful.

Harry Nash is a meek, totally unassuming small-town hardware clerk – think Clark Kent, without the superhero alter ego or the glamorous media job. His only spark in life is when he tries out for the local theater troupe’s next play, because once rehearsals begin and Harry is given a role to play and lines to read, he inhabits that character so completely that, each time, a star is born. Until the play ends, and Harry slinks quietly back to the hardware store.

Helene Shaw is a temporary visitor to town, sent along with the phone company’s new computer (in Vonnegut’s one concession to technological issues in this story) to explain its working methods to the local employees. She’s asked to try out for the play while she’s in town, and she does. She’s utterly untalented, but only until she gets paired, during an audition, with Harry, who is reading the role of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire to her Stella. Suddenly, there are sparks, and fireworks. Two stars are born – but not a romance. Not offstage. Not at first.

In the American Playhouse version of Who Am I This Time?, Demme captures perfectly the fireworks described in print by Vonnegut. A lot of this is due to the casting, and his way with actors: Helene is played by Susan Sarandon, and Harry by Christopher Walken. You can hear them come to life, as Harry-as-Stanley and Helene-as-Stella, in my report on Wednesday’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR.

And afterwards, if you want (and you should), you can order a copy of Who Am I This Time? on DVD – and ponder, as I do, the future, as well as the past, of TV history. Though streaming sites and DVD releases give us the potential of seeing and enjoying almost anything that’s ever been made for TV, if so much of that inventory is unavailable, forgotten, or unknown, what’s the point?    

 
 
 
 
 
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