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TV Reviews : ‘Father Grew Up’ Wilts in a Soggy Story

It’s rare if not unheard of that a play that originated on a small Hollywood stage should wind up as a prime-time network movie. But much of the material dramatized in the under 100-seat L.A. area theaters has a lot in common with the relationship dramas that pop up as two-hour television movies (really 95 minutes, sans commercials).

“The Summer My Father Grew Up,” starring John Ritter (at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 4, 36 and 39), was first produced as a play called “Tooth of the Lion” at the Melrose Theatre in 1982, with Paul Kent in the title role. Interestingly, playwright Sandra Jennings’ stage drama about the effects of divorce on an 11-year-old boy has made the transition to prime time almost intact.

What’s unfortunate, in this case, is that Jennings’ adaptation is the same soggy story that it was on stage. It’s fun for awhile to see the remarried Ritter character bitterly squabble with his ex-wife over the summer custody of their son. Any parent who’s been through a divorce can identify with these scenes.

The trouble with the production is its lack of bite. There’s no edge here. As the boy, juvenile actor Matthew Lawrence is insufferably bright and woefully good-looking. All hard-luck kids should have his problems. He really has it made--two loving, albeit brainwashing, parents who lead enriched professional lives. The divorced parents are happily remarried. There’s even a new baby on the way in the Ritter household.

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Will the boy forgive his father for dumping his mom for another woman? With whom will he spend the summer? This is almost a non-story.

Ritter’s characteristic charm can’t save it. Director Michael Tuchner certainly can’t. Lee Holdridge’s music is soppy. The boy’s fierce, dad-bashing mom (Margaret Whitton) sets feminism back 100 years, and Ritter’s new wife (Karen Young) is too luminous and sweet for words.


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