The confrontational drama--two wary strangers with nothing in common, put together at the whim of a writer--has been around since shortly after Adam noticed something odd about one of his ribs. You would hardly believe that there were new insights to be wrung from such venerable material.
The difference in HBO's "Laundromat," a middle-of-the-night encounter between a frosty have (Carol Burnett) and a feisty have-not (Amy Madigan), is its cast, its author--Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Marsha Norman--and its director, Robert Altman. They turn the predictable into the memorable as each woman's dirty laundry gradually comes out.
(The hourlong TV drama debuts Monday at 10 p.m. and will be shown several other times during April on the pay-TV service.)
The stage is set as, over the Laundromat's battered radio, blues singer Alberta Hunter's insinuating collection of songs suggest some interesting variations on loveless love. Madigan, who lives over the greasy spoon across the street, has a cheating husband and a life with all the options of a prison life-termer. He takes her utterly for granted, is gone every night, won't allow her to work and pours all the money they have into his racing car.
Burnett, a taut ex-teacher with something mysterious about her home life, is touched by the bleakness of Madigan's story and the girl's hopeless self-image, and gradually moves from her own isolation to reach out to Madigan.
What's splendid about the piece is Burnett's watchful delicacy, disdain turning into compassion, played against Madigan's furious, electric outrage at her situation. And all the while Pierre Mignot's camera moves with such sinuousness that you never feel claustrophobic in this cheerless, dilapidated all-night washeteria. (Remember Altman's "Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean"? Same cinematographer.)
There is also a brief, memorable appearance by Michael Wright as a self-assured all-night deejay, seeing if he can pick up a little trouble and maybe get his laundry done at the same time.
Even if you know the dynamics of the piece before it begins, there are great portions of Norman's dialogue between these two deeply lonely wives that speak about the expected in an unexpectedly moving manner.