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Leave of Absence

Brian Dennehy delivers one of his trademark solid performances in this brisk two-hour drama, anchoring an interesting story that fleshes out believable characters, is filled with real emotion and resolves conflict without over-the-top histrionics.

With:
Cast: Brian Dennehy, Jacqueline Bis set, Blythe Danner, Polly Bergen, Noelle Parker, Tim Lounibos, Jessica Walter, Grayce Spence, Michael Burgess, Tonea Stewart, Tom Atwater, Elizabeth Grillo Barbeau, James Burgess, Angelo Pope, Susan Rohrer, Muse Watson.

Brian Dennehy delivers one of his trademark solid performances in this brisk two-hour drama, anchoring an interesting story that fleshes out believable characters, is filled with real emotion and resolves conflict without over-the-top histrionics.

Show includes some of the best work of the pic’s lead actors. Architect Sam Mercer (Dennehy), the epitome of stability and dependability, surprises everyone around him when he announces he’s having an affair.

If that isn’t enough of a shocker, he also states he’s going to take a leave of absence from his marriage — hence show’s title — to care for his terminally ill mistress, Nell (Jacqueline Bisset).

Sam’s wife Eliza, played flawlessly by Blythe Danner, is unusually sympathetic to Sam’s needs and wishes, and her ability to handle the situation is admirable. Ironically, one of her closest confidantes, Bess, played wickedly by Jessica Walter, is also having an affair with a married man, and Eliza is unsympathetic to her situation.

Heated exchanges between Sam and Eliza remain credible, rather than the screamfests typically proffered in such allegedly adult dramas.

Scripter Betty Goldberg deftly weaves an interesting tale, giving the three leads plenty to work with. The doubling up of conflicts affecting the relationships adds twists to an otherwise linear story: As Sam cares for Nell, his mother-in-law (Polly Bergen) becomes ill; just as Sam wants a change, his daughter (Noelle Parker) also rebels. The turns come at just the right moments throughout.

Goldberg also drives home plot points more often with subtlety than grand gestures. Her writing is especially acute when it involves Sam and Nell. The pair’s love of architecture and the experience of a common bond — designing an inner-city community center that will benefit hundreds — are tie-ins that Goldberg uses to illuminate their connection.

Director Tom McLoughlin guides the veteran acting trio into enjoyable territory, achieving an interplay between Eliza, Nell and Sam of a quality usually reserved for ensemble casts of long-running series.

Although story stems from a 20-year-old idea by Bergen, it is as topical and well-conceived as something pulled from today’s bestselling novels. The top-notch acting — from above-the-liners to support cast — makes this a winner for all involved.

Leave of Absence

(Wed. (11), 9-11 p.m., NBC)

Production: Filmed in North Carolina by Grossbart/Barnett productions in association with NBC. Executive producers, Joan Barnett, Jack Grossbart, Polly Bergen; producers, Don Goldman, Linda Kent; writer, Betty Goldberg; director, Tom McLoughlin; production design, Norm Baron; director of photography, Paul Elliott.

Crew: Music, Don Davis; editor, Charles Bornstein; sound,Thomas Varga.

Cast: Cast: Brian Dennehy, Jacqueline Bis set, Blythe Danner, Polly Bergen, Noelle Parker, Tim Lounibos, Jessica Walter, Grayce Spence, Michael Burgess, Tonea Stewart, Tom Atwater, Elizabeth Grillo Barbeau, James Burgess, Angelo Pope, Susan Rohrer, Muse Watson.

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