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Fall '98: Accent! Accent!

The Powers What Be who come up with television show titles should be more careful. They should make sure that the title of a show cannot be used in some awful, negative way in a scathing review. They should, for example, avoid naming a show Cancelled, because this will require a reviewer to write something like "Hopefully, Cancelled will be." Likewise, no show should be called Encore! Encore! because then reviewers will be compelled to pen bon mots along the lines of "Hopefully, there will be no encores for Encore! Encore!"

I am afraid I will be required to do something like this by the end of this review. Apologies in advance. Now, the scathing part:

As near as I can figure, Encore! Encore! is about accents. Nathan Lane, as Joseph Pinoni, has one of those upper-crust anti-accent accents. His mother, played by Joan Plowright, has a similar accent. Ernie Sabella has what can only be described as a Sabellan accent. Glenne Headley has an accent which resonates in her nasal cavities. And the accents are pretty much all there is to the show.

I'm thinking specifically of one scene where Joe and his mother are having an extended conversation. As the scene progressed I became more and more aware of their accents; I began to wonder if the two could keep them up the whole time; the actual line contents faded in importance as I concentrated more and more on the delivery of the lines; and before I knew what was happening I was no longer watching a television show, I was watching two actors in a workshop titled, "Now That You've Memorized Your Lines, What Next?: Part I, Accents."

And what makes this very sad is that Nathan Lane's accent is already beginning to slip. I can hear his quasi-New York nasality leaking into his diction. Compare and contrast with the fact that Kelsey Grammer's Orson Welles impersonation hasn't cracked a millimeter in 14 years and you have an inkling as to why Encore! Encore! is so depressing.

Once the show gets beyond the accents, it collapses humorlessly. Later in the same episode as the accent workshop Pinoni teaches a class of children to perform "Salome." How many people in the audience are likely to get this joke? And how many of them will find it funny? I'm guessing that somewhere there's one very overeducated wiener dog chained in front of a TV tuned to NBC that chuckled in between attempts to gnaw through its own neck.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm all for highbrow humor. But the operative word here is humor. For example, when Frasier and Niles exchange comments like, "Remember when you thought the '1812 Overture' was a great piece of classical music?" "Was I ever so young?", we're talking fairly highbrow and fairly funny. On the other hand I can't imagine anything as unfunny as children performing a scene in which a woman dances lustfully for the incestuous gratification of her father in order to receive the recently hewn head of a prisoner so she can kiss it.

Come to think of it, it's hard to imagine this scene being humorous in any context. "Producers"-era Mel Brooks (Mr. Brooks, where have ye gone?) might have managed it. The Monty Python troupe, maybe. The Kids in the Hall, perhaps, could have found humor here if Salome were a gay man or could be played by Dave Foley in drag (note well, writers of NewsRadio). These worthies might have managed to plow this field with some effort; the writers of Encore! Encore!, however, are not fit to add one molecule from their dying gasps to Eric Idle's whoopee cushion. A man's reach should exceed his grasp; in this case, the writers' reach could not be found with the Hubble telescope. And I suspect an endoscope is more appropriate anyway.

That the writers shortly thereafter had the kids' parents giving them a standing ovation is just a fillip of perversion. I suspect their reaction would be more like Glenne Headley's in the same shot: Stunned and silent disbelief.

It's a shame this show is such a mess, because Nathan Lane is such an original talent. Like Robin Williams, though, Lane's talent needs to be focused -- and it can't carry its own series without a lot of effort. For Williams to work in television he practically had to be made a guest star in every episode of his own show; and maybe that only worked at the time because I was eight. Nathan Lane just needs a lot more around him to bounce off of; too bad this series has all the rebounding strength of cold oatmeal.

I have no connection with the television industry rumor mill, but I can only hope it is busily churning out tales of the imminent demise of Encore! Encore! And when the tales come true none too soon, no one will be calling for the show's namesake.

I told you so.


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