Arthur Miller's 'Clara' provides strong start for 'Playwrights Theater'

If Arthur Miller's "Clara" is indicative of what's to come, the General Motors Playwrights Theater could be the Masterpiece Theatre of American drama.

The Playwrights Theater is a new series of one-act plays hosted by Lauren Bacall and presented by the Arts and Entertainment cable network. The series debuts at 9 tonight and will continue with one new play a month at least through May.


What a wonderful launch Miller's "Clara" provides for such a series.

The play is essentially a two-man performance: William Daniels plays police Lt. Fine (no first name given); Darren McGavin plays Albert Kroll, the father of a young woman named Clara who appears to have been murdered by her lover. Jennifer Parsons plays Clara, who is seen only in flashback.


The play opens with Fine and Kroll in Clara's apartment after the murder. Kroll is in a state of shock.

Fine believes Kroll can help him find the killer. But getting the grieving father to remember and admit everything he knows about Clara and her lover proves to be a long, hard journey of tenacious questioning for Fine and excruciating self-discovery for Kroll.

If you are looking for lots of plot and action, this play is not for you. It's more theater than television. It is shot straight, simple and stark.

All the goodies -- or, in this case, greaties -- are in the words and the wonderful way the actors mouth, chew, roll and savor this feast from Miller's pen. Daniels and McGavin don't exchange lines the way most actors in made-for-TV movies do. They talk to each other the way Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire danced together -- precise, organic, fluid.

What they talk about in this marvelous hour of television are race relations, prejudice, guilt, parental responsibility, love, death and how abstract notions of goodness and decency can lead to the death of a loved one.

Fine forces Kroll to confront the fact that his views on race may have contributed to Clara's death. It is impossible to watch Fine's interrogation of Kroll without feeling his questions burrowing into our own niceties, pieties, biases and prejudices until the social conscience starts to ache.

That shared ache may not be art or an aesthetic response. But it's close enough for an hour of television.