'Hollow Boy' is a vivid contrast in families


Tomorrow night's "American Playhouse" on PBS is an exquisite rendering of both sides of the American dream, how the seemingly limitless possibilities that this country offers those who respond to its flame of freedom can be both liberating and confining.

"The Hollow Boy," a one-hour adaptation of a Hortense Calisher story, focuses on that most fundamental of human institutions, the family, showing how it can be a platform for a spectacular high dive into life or a dungeon that can chain its members to a lifetime of limitations. It will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 10 o'clock.

This is the story of two families in 1930s New York. It opens as one of them -- the Rosenblooms -- are moving into a new apartment. The eldest offspring, a son named Eli, is avoiding work by pretending to conduct an orchestra as a Victrola plays a classical piece to the still bare rooms.

Down on the street, the family's two daughters and their parents good-naturedly struggle with the furnishings, finally persuading Eli to do a bit of heavy lifting.

Watching all this from the window of his apartment is the haunted, handsome Werner. This new family lives just across the airspace, on the same floor, just doors down from the home he shares with his parents, but worlds away.

In the coming days, Werner begins to watch the Rosenbloom family concerts -- Eli conducting, Mom on the piano, Dad and daughters on stringed instruments -- with wonder, awe and envy. The smiles and exuberance he sees through those windows stand in high contrast to what he faces when he turns back into his own apartment.

Werner's parents see their son doing nothing other than wasting time during his window shopping at the Rosenbloom family. He should be working, helping his mother with her catering business. That's what his father is out doing, working hard as a waiter, earning money, saving it, because one day they will open their own restaurant.

The box of cash that is supposed to purchase this family its piece of the American dream becomes an albatross around Werner's neck, weighing down his life, keeping it from taking off in any other direction.

The Rosenblooms are intrigued by the boy they see staring from the window and often invite him over, where he observes with surprise the raucous, politically charged discussions that take place over their dinner table.

Werner finds that his spirit soars on the classical music that often fills the Rosenbloom apartment. But the dour expressions on his parents' faces tell him that there is no time for such frivolity; there is work to be done.

As he and Eli become friends, Werner strains harder at his parental reins. In the most haunting moment of the 60 minutes, Werner denounces his parents as "servants." Eli responds that in America it doesn't matter what you do, that you can still make your dreams come true.

But Werner says that it's not the work they do that makes them servants, it's who they are, people destined to serve others, never to live their own lives.

They can't see that, of course, because they are earning the very thing that America holds so dear -- money -- but they are neglecting the very freedom that money is supposed to buy.

The ending of "Hollow Boy" is unfortunately, but perhaps appropriately, enigmatic. While you may wish for a resolution either more decidedly hopeful or tragic, the exquisite delicacy of this story almost requires a softer touch.

Alexis Arquette is excellent as Werner, giving his character brief, subtle expressions that speak volumes about the coming-of-age yearnings that this boy feels. George Dickerson is equally eloquent as Werner's father, though this mainly German-speaking character has few lines, again communicating through the face.

Marty Finklestein makes Eli so buoyant that he seems to float away, but Jerry Stiller's father ensures that the Rosenbloom family is well-anchored.

There are overtones and undertones to "The Hollow Bay" -- a pointed anti-Semitic comment by Werner's mother is not to be overlooked, coming from a German in the '30s -- but it is not necessary to see beyond its portrayal of the different ways parents turn their boys into men to find it a moving and memorable drama.

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