|(E) On 'E.R.', a Pair of Survivors Who Throw Off Sparks
|By Nenad N. Bach |
Culture And Arts
(E) On 'E.R.', a Pair of Survivors Who Throw Off Sparks
|The following appeared in the NY Times on Oct. 21. Note the reference to |
the war in Bosnia; it should be the war in Croatia and I intend and ask
others to write a letter to have this error corrected in a story which is
otherwise very favorable to Visnjic.
October 21, 2001
On 'E.R.', a Pair of Survivors Who Throw Off Sparks
By STEVE VINEBERG
OS ANGELES -- THE inspired notion of hooking up Abby Lockhart, the
full-time nurse, on-again-off-again med student, with Luka Kovac, the
Croatian physician, on "E.R." created perhaps the most fascinating
relationship on prime-time TV: the meeting of two emotionally repressed
survivors who seemed to have given up hope of any pleasure deeper than
comfort or convenience.
Abby, a recovering alcoholic who dropped out of medical school because
of money quarrels with her bitter ex-husband, was revealed last season
to be the daughter of a bipolar woman whose periodic forays back into
her life keep Abby in a state of anxiety and instability. Luka lost his
wife and both his children when their apartment was bombed during the
Bosnian war. Luka and Abby's sexual chemistry - his brooding Balkan
romanticism sparked the naughty teenager barely hidden under her
professional solidity - and their shared besieged humor covered the
inner turmoil they kept out of each other's view; sometimes their
domestic scenes together were small symphonies of unarticulated
miseries. It was a seasonlong masochist's glut of an affair, and in the
hands of the remarkable Maura Tierney and Goran Visnjic it was - and
continues to be, in the stormy aftermath of Abby and Luka's breakup this
season - singularly compelling.
"In the writers' minds it was a relationship out of need and not
necessarily depth," Ms. Tierney said this summer on the set. "But it's
so interesting that they wound up together, because they're both missing
something - some part of their spirit is divided." Mr. Visnjic added,
"Abby presumed that Luka was emotionally unavailable, and that's why she
went for him."
Certainly these two, both introduced during the 1999-2000 season, embody
the willingness of "E.R." to explore the darker recesses of its
characters. "All of the characters are approached through their
emotional inadequacies," Ms. Tierney said. "That's how they're defined;
that's how the characters navigate the stories."
Mr. Visnjic and Ms. Tierney are the best reasons, among a highly
skillful cast, to watch NBC's enduring melodrama, which has been around
since 1994 and is as affecting as any medical series TV has produced.
(As Kerry Weaver, the lesbian physician who directs the emergency room,
Laura Innes shares top acting honors with them.) Ms. Tierney, who
studied in New York at Circle in the Square in the mid-80's, slipped
into the cast of "E.R." after five years on "News Radio" and appearances
in several feature films, including Mike Nichols's "Primary Colors." Mr.
Visnjic received classical training at Zagreb's Academy of Dramatic Arts
(he played Hamlet over seven summers in a co- production of the Croatian
National Theater and the Dubrovnik Summer Festival) and first gained the
attention of Western audiences with a touching, fully inhabited
supporting performance in the movie "Welcome to Sarajevo." "But I
consider `E.R.' my biggest training ever," he said. "It's almost easier
for me that it's in a foreign language, because it's so foreign in every
way for me to be on a show like this."
Watching his work, you can guess what he means. His style is both
interior and exterior - a stylized approach tempered with psychological
realism. As an actor, he seems constantly to be modifying his technique,
determining how much to craft his emotional responses, in a way that
parallels Kovac's method of acclimating himself to a culture so
strikingly unlike his own.
Kovac has maintained his wartime mentality, which makes him particularly
qualified for the routine pile-up of trauma in the emergency room. But
the moral imperative that leads him to make renegade decisions - like
denying a kidney transplant to a young man who burned his own out with
cocaine - can be unrelenting, and distasteful. So far Mr. Visnjic has
been most extraordinary in a story arc involving a dying bishop (a
memorable performance by James Cromwell) with whom he tangled over
whether or not a drunk driver who had killed a man and his child had the
right to absolution. At the climax of this story, the priest persuaded
Luka to unearth his buried guilt over his inability to save his own
family. Mr. Visnjic began to tell the story matter of factly, from a
cautious distance, and then suddenly found himself up to his neck in it.
In acting terms, he had wandered into a dangerous area that technique
couldn't float him out of; only the depth of his emotional commitment to
the character and the scene could.
In her first season on "E.R.," Ms. Tierney wore her hair nearly
shoulder-length and straggly; it wasn't flattering, but it complemented
Abby's low self-image. (Since the show paired Abby and Luka, she's been
permitted to look much prettier - a far better choice for both the
actress and the character.) With the help of the writers, Ms. Tierney
has turned Abby into a multi- layered character. Calm and reassuring
with patients, she has a caught-out little-girl side that surfaces when
she makes a bad medical judgment. With John Carter (Noah Wyle), the
resident she sponsored at A.A. and then grew into a companionable,
not-quite-defined relationship with, she's playful and flirtatious, but
in a pre- adult way: they're like a couple of kids at their high school
prom, even when they're out at a benefit dinner hosted by his patrician
family. It's only with Maggie, her mother, that her irony grows caustic
and she allows herself the outbursts of both fury and despair that, the
rest of the time, she's so careful to guard against. "I find that people
who have had difficult childhoods don't cry a lot," Ms. Tierney said.
"It just becomes part of your life to bear it. You have to pull it
together." Abby's best defense is her humor. Much of Ms. Tierney's
performance is a complex comedy routine with a continuously varying
tone. Her scrunched-up pudding face keeps commenting on what's going on
as if she were providing subtitles to convey her thoughts.
The graceless way in which the show has split up Abby and Luka is a
disappointment. Luka's behavior in the break-up scene and even his
dialogue seemed to belong to some other character - not because his
conduct was ugly (after all, this is a man who, in one episode, beat a
mugger to death) but because it was oddly crude for this refugee
Heathcliff. You couldn't fault Mr. Visnjic's acting or Ms. Tierney's,
though; you never can. It's hard to say how their characters will relate
to each other now that they're on the outs, or even if they'll stay that
way. The only expectation we can reasonably have is that, given the
story lines, these two actors will continue to find new and surprising
layers underneath the ones the show peels away.
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