"Lackawanna Blues," which premieres Saturday night on HBO, brings Ruben Santiago-Hudson's autobiographical one-man show to the small screen, and it is a work less than the sum of its parts.
"The Odd Couple" and "The Sound of Music" notwithstanding, not all works for the theater are effectively transferable to other mediums, and we have met one here. Onstage Santiago-Hudson played about 20 roles, mainly representing the inhabitants of the boarding house run by his real-life surrogate mother, Rachel "Nanny" Crosby (played here by S. Epatha Merkerson). They were "ramblers or drifters of some sort, and they each had some experience with prison, mental hospitals, alcohol, drugs, pimpin', gamblin' -- or church -- and everyone of them had a story to tell." Here they are divvied out an actor apiece, diminishing whatever sense of magical transformation and personal testament the original would have had. (Santiago-Hudson, a Tony Award winner for August Wilson's "Seven Guitars" and an Obie winner for "Lackawanna Blues" and soon to be seen with Halle Berry -- an executive producer here -- in ABC's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," does keep one small part for himself.)
This is Santiago-Hudson's adaptation and the first film from much-honored theater director and official New York "living landmark" George C. Wolfe, who first worked with the actor in "Jelly's Last Jam." But they would have better served the material by shooting it more or less straight, like Spalding Gray's "Swimming to Cambodia" or Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992." It would have been a harder sell and would not have looked nearly so good in the trailers, but it would have preserved something of the enchantment of theater.
In bringing the play "to life" in more usual ways -- dressing up actors in period clothes and arranging them in naturalistic settings -- it becomes clear that there's no story here, in the sense of something that moves with some sort of dramatic motion toward a climax or a point, just a series of barely connected episodes suffused in the warm glow of nostalgia, a tear-blurred vision of the past in which even the bad times seem like good times because they're old times.
It does begin well. After a present-day preamble, the film jumps to 1956, when Lackawanna, N.Y., "like all Great Lakes cities, was jumping" -- and nowhere so much as at Nanny's Friday night fish fry. We land right in the middle of the party, splendidly choreographed to replay after replay of Joe Turner's "Boogie Woogie Country Girl." There are food and drink and cards and dice and Macy Gray with a razor. "Now see what a colored person could have if they worked hard and were in the right place?" asks narrator Ruben.
Nanny takes a proactive approach to Robert Frost's definition of "home" as "the place where, when you have to go there / They have to take you in," collecting around her the tired, the poor and various other huddled masses, many of whom are missing things -- an arm, a leg, sight, common sense. She's a protector of the weak, standing up to tough guys. She talks madmen back to reason and saves the reckless from themselves and never asks for thanks. (Though she gets some in the end.) And she "ain't had to hate nor hurt nobody to do it."
Yet such righteousness becomes tiresome. The woman is a saint, clearly, but saints are most interesting when they're tempted or tortured, and Nanny has worked out her deals with life long before we meet her. Her one weak spot is her possibly alcoholic, unfaithful and frequently irresponsible husband, Bill, for whom she has a deep well of tolerance. But Santiago-Hudson makes this a sign of strength: "Sometimes a man and a woman have an understanding that no one else understands, not even their own selves," says Nanny, as if that explained things.
The film proceeds as a series of confrontations, of little climaxes and little resolutions, which come out of nowhere and disappear (once Nanny has her say, in a puff of narration) -- e.g., "Things between Nanny and Bill were calm after that." It is a steady-state universe in which turbulent forces do not disturb the balance of happiness.
It feels ill-mannered to disparage something so fundamentally good-hearted -- like tearing up a thank-you note. (For many viewers, the good-heartedness may be enough -- there is always something to be said for celebrating life, whether the celebration succeeds as art or not.) And though the parts don't snap together into a satisfying whole, taken as a series of moments it's enjoyable enough, like sitting through a master acting class, watching prize students perform scenes and monologues.
Many of these appearances amount to cameos -- characters pop up like figures in a carnival fun house, to deliver their two lines or five, then pop back into their box. The bigger stars tend to overwhelm their parts -- there's Delroy Lindo with one arm, one notes, and Louis Gossett Jr. with one leg, and Jimmy Smits with a Puerto Rican accent, and Mos Def singing some old jump blues, and he's pretty good at it too -- while the less familiar faces have more room to be who they're supposed to be. Especially good are Carmen Ejogo as Ruben's mother, Terrence Dashon Howard as Bill, Jeffrey Wright as an ex-con, and singer Macy Gray, who transfers her natural peculiarity to her character with great effect. Rosie Perez, Liev Schreiber and Ernie Hudson also appear.
Above all, it is nice to see Merkerson, most familiar as Lt. Anita Van Buren on "Law & Order," working in some other flavors. She's sexy here, and sassy, and tender, and a lot of other things Dick Wolf never gives her a chance to be.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Ratings: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with advisory for content, language and violence)
S. Epatha Merkerson...Rachel "Nanny" Crosby
Marcus Carl Franklin...Ruben
Terrence Dashon Howard...Bill Cosby
Executive producers Halle Berry, Vincent Cirrincione, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Shelby Stone. Director George C. Wolfe. Writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson.