Gleason & Olivier's Deft Marital Drama on HBO

"Why look at you," says Laurence Olivier to Jackie Gleason. "You're a man of distinction! Anyone can see that." Gleason is not only indisputably a man of distinction, he also gives the better of the two performances that make up "Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson," a sweet piece of theater premiering Sunday night at 8 on Home Box Office.

Olivier plays Halpern, who in the first scene stands over the uncovered grave of his wife, who has just died after 42 years of marriage to him. From behind a tombstone emerges Gleason, resplendent even though relatively reserved, as Johnson, who, it evolves, shared with the late Mrs. Halpern for "nearly half a century" a "platonic" relationship that began as an affair that predated her marriage.

Except for bracketing scenes at the cemetery, Lionel Goldstein's play, a deftly measured duet for duffers, takes place entirely within the confines of a bar and restaurant where Johnson informs Halpern of the relationship he enjoyed with the man's wife. He promised the late "Florence," whom we never see, that he would do so. And he does.

One might have expected that for a slight television work like this (the play lasts only 55 minutes), Olivier would have had to stoop a little, and Gleason stretch a little, in order to become equals. But no; they are equals from the outset. A case could be made that Gleason is, in television terms, the better actor of the two. Really, a case could be made--but let someone else make it.

The fact is, however, Gleason does the better job here. Olivier makes the petulant, indignant old man he plays a bit too much of a carnival, with a quizzically mishmashed accent, and yet he is, as always, fascinating to watch. He gives the funniest line reading possible--a thespian's burlesque of a low-comic vaudevillian rejoinder--when he says to Gleason, "You contributed to my happiness? This I gotta hear!"

Unfortunately, Olivier seems to have relied on cue cards to help him with the dialogue, so that he is always stealing glances off to the side, and not looking directly at Gleason. If Gleason had cue cards, he was more subtle about using them. His performance is graceful and immaculate. It is a most honorable accounting, and how gratifying to see Gleason dandied up again, not dressed in baggy khaki and chasing yahoos across the Southland.

Directing a two-person television play might sound like a simple thing, but it isn't. Alvin Rakoff tries to vary his shots as much as possible (just past midway through the play, the actors get up and move from the bar to the dining room, a contrived change of locale), but he seems to pull back for wide shots at the wrong times. In most TV dramatic programs, there are far too many reaction shots; in "Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson," there are too few. Rakoff seems interested in the actors only when they are speaking.

An American-British coproduction (by Edie and Ely Landau), the play is set in no particular city, country or time. As they talk, the two characters touch on matters of youth and age, personal truths and fidelity, and how men and women take turns bringing out the bests and the worsts in one another. It's hard to tell where the play's spell ends and the magnetism of the two actors takes over, but then, it doesn't much matter. And it doesn't much hurt that Goldstein ends with a coda that is almost guaranteed to send susceptible viewers blubbering helplessly through the closing credits.

Captivating and disarmingly delicate, "Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson" is not the kind of programming the commercial networks can't do. It's the kind they won't do. HBO earns itself another medal still.