James: "Mind if I sit down?"
Bill: "Yes, I do."
James: "You'll get over it."
It might be James Thurber, it could be Lewis Carroll, but no, it's Harold Pinter, one of the greatest and surely the most mischievous of the world's living playwrights. Not that many of the world's living playwrights are living, anyway.
Eighteen years, however, is far too long to wait for a television production of "The Collection," Pinter's 1960 classic of the ambiguous that will be seen tonight at 9 on Channel 26 through the graces of the Public Broadcasting Service.
Laurence Olivier produced and stars in this production (seen in England in 1976) and the first thing that strikes you about it is that too much TV tinkering has been done. The second thing that strikes you, however, strikes you much harder than the first thing. And that is that Harold Pinter is perfect for television. All his plays should be done for television. And he should write some new ones as well, and put them on television right away.
The pregnant elliptical bedevilment, the stately looniness of pacing, the imcomparable economy of language that makes a word like "scrumptious" or a phrase like "in a manner of speaking" sparkle like a crystal apple on a linen tablecloth - all these Pinterry things are given a stunning enchanced tension in close-up. And director Michael Apted, despite liberties taken with the play's structure, keeps things entirely true in tone to the work and its author.
The cast may be beyond even Pinter's wildest dreams. Olivier's Harry Kane merely rolls an eye a fraction of a fraction of an inch and you feel an urge to swoon in admiration. Alan Bates, as the intrusive James, suggests a meancing figure out of Magritte. Malcolm McDowell is a strikingly effete and pampered Bill - who lives with Harry under suspicious circumstances - and Helen Mirren perches exquisitely on the brink between composure and madness as James's wife Stella.
The production keeps us teetering on Pinter's high wire, suspended between the bafflingly abstract and the powerfully or hilariously realistic, and the play is so inexplicably mesmerizing that when it is over, you still feel you are living in Harold Pinter's world and that if you take one step in the wrong direction, you will fall helplessly through a floor of shattered glass. "The Collection" was already a masterpiece, but television makes it a still more approachable one.
It perhaps would be ungracious to begrude Erma Bombeck her career as the (very) poor woman's Art Buchwald, particularly since it has netted her a fortune, but tolerating her drab whimsy for two hours on television requires simply too much selflessness. A CBS film of her book "The Grass I Always Greeter Over the Septic Tank," at 9 tonight on Channel 9, is almost fiendishly negligible enterwainment.
Carol Burnett, required to look beleaguered and woebegone through most of the show, and Charles Grodin, who always looks beleaguered and woebelgone anyway, play a cookie-cutterhusband an dwife who try to escape the city for the suburbs and end up with more ostensibly hilarious problems than they can handle.
These problems are exactly the sort that plagued the Stu Erwin family in an early TV sit-com of the '50s, except that now writers Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon are free to enliven the script with lots and lots of jokes about fertilizer and toilets.
The gags go back to somewhere between the Neandethal age and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," but surely they were all of them funnier in previous lives. You can see how this production was calculated to amuse and patronize everybody in America with a two-car garage, yet it drones on so listlessly and unconvincingly that it continually discredits itself.
Let us put Ms. Bomback back in the supermarket bookstalls where she belongs.