Review: ‘American Playhouse Hallelujah’

Disappointing Christmas tale is a project commissioned by American Playhouse and scripted by Michael Genet about a newly assigned 34-year-old minister, a pregnant homeless girl, a vet who runs a homeless mission and, slightly, a grumpy character who sees the light. Halfway through Genet's tale of a black church in Washington, D.C., the storyline dives into bathos.

Disappointing Christmas tale is a project commissioned by American Playhouse and scripted by Michael Genet about a newly assigned 34-year-old minister, a pregnant homeless girl, a vet who runs a homeless mission and, slightly, a grumpy character who sees the light. Halfway through Genet’s tale of a black church in Washington, D.C., the storyline dives into bathos.

Dapper Rev. Crawford, transferred to run the church, bumps into politics inside, utmost poverty outside. Pregnant 16-year-old Katherine, just in from the boondocks, wanders into single-dad Crawford’s parish house, where his son, Nat, plays sullen for his own reasons.

All this builds plausibly into a good teleplay with potentially strong character Big Willie running a homeless mission and Crawford trying to ingratiate himself with everybody. Katherine, who’s supposed to have a special glow about her, gets near her time for a Christmas delivery.

Characters start acting silly. The preacher’s son runs away; Crawford, finding Big Willie drunk on Christmas Eve, unbelievably goes to sleep in Willie’s residential crate; Katherine has her baby on Christmas morning at the grouch’s so he can have a miraculous change of heart.

One of the program’s joys is the sermon of a passed-over minister, Rev. Foy, played to the fullest by Ray Aranha; Crawford, played comfortably by handsome Dennis Haysbert, delivers a simple-minded second sermon. Sweet-faced Tracy Douglas’ Katherine, especially in the program’s first half, pulls off several effective moments. Keith Davis convinces as big-hearted Big Willie; James Earl Jones lumbers through the unenviable role of the grouch.

Writer Genet, as a homeless man, turns a fine burst of anger into something substantial. Phyllis Bash, limning a hard-hearted committee topper, makes a strong impresh.

Ron Fortunato’s camera, director Charles Lane and designer Ina Mayhew create a strikingly appalling mission, and a church song session enlivens the effort.

American Playhouse Hallelujah

(Wed. (22), 8-9:30 p.m., PBS)

Production

Filmed in N.Y. and Washington, D.C., by Rhinoceros Prods. Producer, Howard Brickner; director, Charles Lane; writer, Michael Genet.

Crew

Camera, Ron Fortunato; editor, Ann Stein; sound, Jeff Pullman; music, Wendy Blackstone; production designer, Ina Mayhew.

Cast

Cast: Ray Aranha, Phyllis Bash, Ruth Brown, Rosanna Carter, Kristian Damian, Keith David, Suzzanne Douglas, Tracy Douglas, Michael Genet, Clabe Hartley, Isaac Hayes, Tiger Haynes, Dennis Haysbert, James Earl Jones, Carol Maillard, Lex Monson, Phylicia Rashad, Deon Richmond, Sarah Baley, Rev. Wilfred Callender, Dulee Hill, Maria Hurtado, John Lathan, Gloria McCarther, Nicole Mayard, Francine Piggott, Ian Guiles, Terry Robinson, Patti Roe, Fredrick Strother, Cori Thomas.
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