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Friday, May 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist
While the play's usually the thing, sometimes the players are enough. Witness two fine weekend pairings: Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy in "Scott Turow's Reversible Errors" on CBS, and Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart in Showtime's remake of "The Lion in Winter."
"Reversible Errors," airing 9 to 11 p.m. on Sunday and Tuesday (KIRO-TV), is the last gasp of May sweeps miniseries. Based on Turow's best-selling novel, it represents the crowd-pleasing category of legal mysteries that set a major trend two decades ago.
I'm generally no big fan of these technical thrillers. They tend to substitute intricate plotting for emotional havoc, and to rely on unearthing evidence rather than plumbing human motive to provide suspense.
Consequently, the rich swirl of character that once drove film noir and still may be seen in British productions like PBS' "Prime Suspect" is often missing.
But acting and chemistry can surmount standard set-ups and methodical twists. One need only revisit the "Thin Man" movies to see a silk purse made from synthetic strands.
And while Huffman and Macy aren't exactly Myrna Loy and William Powell, they are a great pleasure to watch in "Reversible Errors."
Mind you, this isn't the couple meant to take top billing in the cooing department. That's Tom Selleck and Monica Potter, who play world-weary cop Larry Starczek and ambitious attorney Muriel Wynn.
Selleck and Potter are cast well. He's gracefully aged into a leonine, recumbent sexiness. She's the physical incarnation of wide-eyed amorality and youthful ambition.
Yet when the duo spar, it stops short of sparks. They are somehow too available to each other. The key ingredients of romantic tension humor, insight, withholding, attack are absent.
Luckily, Macy and Huffman project these qualities in abundance. It is always a pleasure watching Huffman's ice queens gradually thaw; what's special here is witnessing a prototypically earnest Macy guide her through the process and also transform himself.
If this sounds therapeutic rather than torrid, wait for the consummation in Part II (yes, delayed gratification helps). There's a terrific turning point when Macy, now a corporate attorney, goes from uncertain suitor to tender, self-assured master of the bedroom.
Macy and Huffman have still more to reveal as performers. By the time "Reversible Errors" ends and this husband-and-wife team have worked their magic, they have done justice to their characters and it scarcely matters whether justice has been rendered in the story.
"The Lion in Winter," airing at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, features a very different kind of couple.
OK, that's putting it too coyly. When we meet them, Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II of England appear headed for an exceptionally bloody separation, alongside which modern-day Windsor squabbling pales. Divorce wasn't big in 1183.
"The Lion in Winter" first was produced for the stage and then turned into a 1968 motion picture movie that won an Oscar for the screenplay. The stars Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole were no slouches, either.
These are formidable boots for Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart to fill. They do it surprisingly well, though whether it was worth doing is for you to decide.
Despite roots in the Plantagenet era, "The Lion in Winter" closely resembles another 1960s hit, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Set aside the pomp and costumes and what you get is a wordy marital brawl featuring psychological assault and battery. It was cool stuff back then.
Under such circumstances, an actor does well to pace himself. Hepburn and O'Toole did not follow this course, and the result is positively exhausting. A viewer never has the chance to forget being eyewitness to two great stars at the peak of their emotive powers.
Thanks to the direction of Andrei Konchalovsky or guided by intuitive skill, Close and Stewart are impeccably restrained. It's a given that these two theater-trained actors won't have trouble finessing the complicated language; what's revelatory is their ability to rein in some hammy habits and make the histrionic dialogue nearly natural.
In fact, Close is craftily expounding on one of her quintessential roles: vengeful, forsaken lover. Eleanor doesn't boil bunnies in pots, but she's full steam ahead on brilliant conniving and verbal venom as she and Henry battle over choosing a successor.
As for Stewart, he puts Henry in a benign, affable mode that makes his sudden shifts to rage and despair less theatrical and more effective. Stewart has dumped the stentorian tones for the underplaying authority of a true monarch. Let combatants beware.
So, however, should the audience. "The Lion in Winter" is an unrelenting, 2½-hour war of stagy one-upmanship that requires as much endurance as waiting to discover which son inherits the throne. My kingdom for a pause.
Monday: The full scoop on the fall 2004-2005 network season.
Kay McFadden: firstname.lastname@example.org
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