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Common Ground

Showtime network continues its commitment to projects that would annoy the heck out of conservative radio and TV yakker Dr. Laura Schlessinger with a nicely crafted trio of stories about the changing small-town gay experience in America over the past five decades. Although it walks on the preachy side of the street at times, pic dramatizes important points about the rights of gays and lesbians, and features a solid cast.

With:
Ira - Edward Asner Father Leon - Beau Bridges Don - Harvey Fierstein Principal Dawson - Brian Kerwin Mrs. Nelson - Margot Kidder Coach Davis - Dan Lauria Amos - James LeGros Dorothy Nelson - Brittany Murphy Billy Temple - Jason Priestley Lt. McPherson - Mimi Rogers Janet - Helen Shaver Johnny Burroughs - Eric Stoltz Toby Anderson - Jonathan Taylor Thomas Gil Roberts - Steven Weber

Showtime network continues its commitment to projects that would annoy the heck out of conservative radio and TV yakker Dr. Laura Schlessinger with a nicely crafted trio of stories about the changing small-town gay experience in America over the past five decades. Although it walks on the preachy side of the street at times, pic dramatizes important points about the rights of gays and lesbians, and features a solid cast, of which former sitcom stars Steven Weber (“Wings”) and Jonathan Taylor Thomas (“Home Improvement”) emerge as standouts.

Exec producers A. D. Oppenheim and thesp Brian Kerwin (“Beggars and Choosers”) brought three top gay American playwrights — Paula Vogel, Terrence McNally, and Harvey Fierstein — to collaborate on the story. The result is a noble, yet uneven chronicle of the changing mores of the residents of a small Connecticut town regarding homosexuality.

The first chapter, “A Friend of Dorothy,” takes place in 1954 and stars Brittany Murphy as Dorothy, a young woman who is discharged from the Navy after being caught in a raid at a gay bar. Vogel’s script perfectly captures the paranoid mood of the ’50s and is strongest when it depicts Dorothy’s demonization by the prejudiced townspeople. Among the supporting players, Helen Shaver (as a friendly lesbian coffee shop owner) offers the perfect antidote to Margot Kidder’s histrionic turn as Dorothy’s unforgiving mom. “Beverly Hills, 90210’s” Jason Priestley is also memorable as a happy-go-lucky Navy friend, who teaches Dorothy about the gay subculture.

The pic’s strongest part is McNally’s segment, “Mr. Roberts,” about a closeted 1970s era high school teacher (Weber), who comes to terms with his own sexuality after his prized gay student (Thomas) is victimized by his peers. Poignant and well-acted, this chapter resonates strongly because it underlines how a society’s push for conformity leads to the internalized self-hatred of many homosexuals. Weber and Thomas are in fine form, and their scenes together are highly emotional, without becoming maudlin.

The title of Fierstein’s segment, “Andy & Amos,” is a good indicator of how slight and cutesy the closing segment turns out to be. Set in the year 2000, it’s all about an upper-class double-income white gay couple’s marriage ceremony, and how one of the lovebirds (James LoGros) gets the wedding-day jitters. LoGros and Ed Asner, who plays the confused groom’s father, have a few nice moments together, but Fierstein’s jokes are painfully dated. There are funnier lines in five minutes of any episode of “Will and Grace” than in this whole vignette — and the points made by the scribe will be revolutionary only to those who have been living in a bomb shelter for the past 40 years.

Helmer Donna Deitch (“Desert Hearts”) makes some inspired decisions about presenting each time period, and has found in Eric Stoltz a perfect witness to the three stories and a smooth way of unifying the chapters. Tech credits, especially Jacek Laskus’ evocative lensing, are excellent.

Fortunately, Showtime is not ghettoizing the telepic in a “Gay Pride Month Special Programming” block the way PBS does in May. At a time when initiatives prohibiting gay marriages, such as California’s Prop. 22, are hot-button issues in local elections, “Common Ground” does an effective job of remembering past milestones in gay rights and recognizing the arduous battles ahead. And please, can somebody messenger a tape to Dr. Laura?

Common Ground

Showtime; Sat. Jan. 29, 8 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Toronto by Showtime; Executive producers, A.D. Oppenheim and Brian Kerwin; director, Donna Deitch; "A Friend of Dorothy," written by Paula Vogel; "Mr. Roberts," written by Terrence McNally; "Andy & Amos," written by Harvey Fierstein.

Crew: Director of photography, Jacek Laskus; line producer, Frank Siracusa; production designer, Doug McCullough; art director, Peter Emmink; casting director, Rene Rousselot; set decorator, Garth Brunt. Running time: 120 MIN.

Cast: Ira - Edward Asner Father Leon - Beau Bridges Don - Harvey Fierstein Principal Dawson - Brian Kerwin Mrs. Nelson - Margot Kidder Coach Davis - Dan Lauria Amos - James LeGros Dorothy Nelson - Brittany Murphy Billy Temple - Jason Priestley Lt. McPherson - Mimi Rogers Janet - Helen Shaver Johnny Burroughs - Eric Stoltz Toby Anderson - Jonathan Taylor Thomas Gil Roberts - Steven WeberWith: Joanne Vannicola, Andrew Arlie.

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