TV REVIEW : Insightful 'Heidi' Chronicles Lifetime of Change

"The Heidi Chronicles"--a bitingly witty chronicle of a woman's odyssey through the post-Kennedy decades--has finally made it to television. And it's a good thing that author Wendy Wasserstein held out for a production that would provide a faithful representation of her 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The two-hour version that premieres on TNT Sunday is a rare example of the medium's capacity to entertain and inform while generating deep currents of emotion.

Jamie Lee Curtis stars as Heidi Holland in a role that takes her from the intellectual optimism of a mid-'60s high school graduation to a late-'80s, coming-to-grips acknowledgment of the world as it is. In between, she has a painful love affair with Scoop Rosenbaum, a journalist, played by Peter Friedman, and struggles with the ups and downs of lifelong friendships with Peter Patrone (Tom Hulce) and Susan Johnson (Kim Cattrall).

Holland is a kind of Everywoman of the period, passing through the tidal changes of feminist epiphany, the Vietnam War, the presidential election of 1968, the Nixon resignation and the spirit-wracking impact of John Lennon's death. It is a character that could easily have become too loaded with symbolism to seem real. But Curtis--in a splendid, career-boosting display of craft and skill--creates a Heidi who is simultaneously complex, empathetic and eminently believable.

Friedman, reprising his Broadway role, finds the vulnerability beneath Scoop's brash exterior. Cattrall's Susan, seduced by every new trend, is a bright contrast to the moody grays and browns of Curtis' Heidi. And it is Hulce's thoughtful characterization of Peter that brings the ultimate sense of reality and closure to Heidi's story.

There are a few technical problems. Periodically uneven audio loses a line here and there, especially in a wedding reception encounter between Heidi and Scoop. And a brisk, 28-day shoot clearly limited veteran director Paul Bogart and editor Stan Cole in their choice of shots. Given the rich intimacy of Wasserstein's text, the film's overall flow would have benefited from a more leisurely pacing and a few less wide-angle scenes.

But these are minor carps about an otherwise superb production. The translation of a stage piece into the small-screen boundaries of TV often produces a reduction of dramatic thrust in favor of action and movement. Bogart and executive producer Michael Brandman, however, have been straight-arrow true to Wasserstein's work. The result is a revelatory, humorous, shrewdly insightful look at a changing era in American life.

* "The Heidi Chronicles" airs at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday on TNT. It repeats at 7 p.m. Wednesday and at 5 p.m. Saturday.

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