Picks and Pans Review: Lackawanna Blues

updated 02/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

HBO (Sat., Feb. 12, 8 p.m. ET)

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This TV movie fairly teems with life. Hard to believe it's based on a play with a cast of one.

Actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson wrote and performed the original Off-Broadway show, a valentine to the surrogate mother who raised him in the rooming house she ran in Lackawanna, N.Y., outside Buffalo. Santiago-Hudson played some 20 parts onstage, but here director George C. Wolfe fleshes out his work with an extraordinary ensemble (including the writer as one of the boarders).

Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkerson memorably embodies the strength and compassion of the central character, Nanny, and Marcus Carl Franklin plays young Ruben with a sweetness and intelligence that mark him as special. Delroy Lindo and Jeffrey Wright contribute vivid portrayals of boarders with violent histories, and Terrence Howard skillfully conveys the emotional contradictions of Nanny's philandering husband. There's lots of music too. A Lackawanna nightclub's jumpin' when Mos Def sings "Destination Love."


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