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'Treme': Khandi Alexander, as LaDonna Batiste-Williams, has no time for your problems

April 25, 2010 | 11:02 pm

Treme13small If you’ve got a spare half hour and want some schooling, after you finish watching episode #3 of "Treme" in its entirety, go back and watch only Khandi Alexander’s scenes. Fast-forward through the other stuff – which continues to be engaging, to be sure – and focus on her work as LaDonna Batiste-Williams.

You can even turn down the sound. Just look at  what she does with her eyes, with her brow, the way she clenches her jaw, purses her lips, that smile that can drop away in a flash to a scowl or a full-blown fit. She can deaden her eyes or make them spill with life.

Whether LaDonna is respectfully nudging her mother to move to Baton Rouge, her voice lifting into a pinched plea while scrambling eggs, or whether, thus denied, she's snatching a piece of bacon off her mom’s plate and tearing at it with her teeth, Alexander is wonderfully magnetic in this episode, and it’s great to see her given work that’s allowing her to stretch out.

Alexander and series creator David Simon have a history. She appeared in his pre-Wire HBO mini-series "The Corner," but sat out "The Wire" and made a good living doing network dramas, most notably major roles in both "ER" and the "CSI" franchise.

As we mentioned in the first installment of our "Treme" coverage, we’ve had a krush on Khandi since her "News Radio" days, when her job consisted of rolling her eyes at Joe Rogan, spitting invectives at Phil Hartman and slapping around Andy Dick. She was the calm in the middle of the comedic news room chaos, but in "Treme," her inner self feels constantly on the verge of imploding as she deals with a fractured family whose pieces are spread across the South.

So anyway, about that face.

Simon and episode director Ernest Dickerson give her the night’s best scene, which consists of a single 70-second shot of LaDonna in her bar. The shot begins when she enters with a cussed-up tirade and ends with a loving but claustrophobic close-up on her tightly wound face that feels like a John Cassavetes outtake.

Within those 70 seconds she moves from fury to calm as she slams on the emotional brakes with a finger-snap/check-yourself movement and says, “You know what. Uh uh. I ain’t even going to get stressed out about this.” But her emotions are still frazzled as she pulls out her phone and dials.

She’s calling her brother-in-law, who’s a powerful judge in the city. In addition to facing unreliable contractors and a stubborn mother, LaDonna is involved in an increasingly desperate effort to find her missing brother Damon, last spotted before Katrina in prison garb on the Broad Street Bridge. But the judge isn’t calling her back, and LaDonna is forced to leave another polite, pleading message. It's this little interaction on the phone, so pliant and quivering, that should get her nominated for something, but she takes it even further when, the moment she hangs up, she returns to fury with scornful expletive.  

She’s bumping up against not only insurance and a roofer, but a New Orleans class system that puts her husband's family up a few notches  -- what she calls their "7th Ward Creole [stuff]" -- and therefore  apparently disdainful of her and her bar-tending ways.

The other great scene of the night is the rich, funny interaction between Steve Zahn and John Goodman when the former, as musician Davis McAlary, arrives at the latter’s house. Goodman, playing Tulane professor Creighton Burnette, is the noticeably protective father of a 13-year-old daughter who’s learning to play piano. When McAlary arrives, the suspicious father gives him a wary once-over that’s both spot-on and very funny. The chemistry and interplay between Zahn and Goodman bodes well for whatever storyline eventually builds around the two.

-- Randall Roberts

Photo: Khandi Alexander as LaDonna Batiste-Williams in "Treme." Photo: Skip Bolen / HBO