An all-star cast -- including a pair of Emmy-winners for comedy -- brings Clare Boothe Luce's classic play, "The Women," to TV viewers Tuesday night when PBS presents the latest installment of its ongoing "Stage on Screen" series.
The play -- a hit in 1936 that was adapted for Hollywood with Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell in 1939 -- is a witty, sassy examination of womanhood, partly lamentation but mostly celebration. Although it is about women in general, the central characters are women of means -- so working-class viewers might have to stretch a bit to see themselves in the behavior of Mary Haines (Cynthia Nixon), Crystal Allen (Jennifer Tilly) and Sylvia Fowler (Kristen Johnston).
Luce's life was about as far as you can get from average. She was managing editor of Vanity Fair, a member of Congress from New York and U.S. ambassador to Italy. Her husband, Henry Luce, was the publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines.
Still, she manages to plant working-class women here and there in the cast -- servants, a nurse -- who bluntly speak for women who will never know the luxury enjoyed by the main characters, and who have difficulty seeing what motivates the well-to-do to complain so much.
Director Scott Elliott's staging, performances by Nixon ("Sex and the City"), Tilly ("Bullets Over Broadway"), Johnston ("3rd Rock from the Sun") and Rue McClanahan ("Golden Girls"), and costumes by noted fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi -- all conspire to play up the fabulous side of the characters and their world.
The PBS production is a videotaped record of the Roundabout Theatre Company's sold-out revival of the play, which is rarely performed because Luce's estate is particular about authorizing productions. The actresses did not tailor their performances for the lens so TV viewers get a camera's-eye view of what patrons in the theater saw.
Executive producer Jac Venza said the technique lends itself especially well to comedy.
"I never felt having the presence of an audience was much value to drama," he said, "because you never had occasion to cut away to the audience. Television audiences are accustomed to hearing real laughs that happen in the actual place."
"Stage on Screen" televised the Roundabout's production of "The Man Who Came to Dinner," starring Nathan Lane, last year. In that production, actors' voices were picked up by mikes placed around the stage, because the idea was to present TV viewers -- to the extent possible -- with a theatrical experience.
Venza said that for this production, actors wore body mikes to give the production a "closer presence" to viewers.
Nixon said the result is still neither entirely stage production nor TV production.
"A play that's filmed is never really one thing or the other, a play or a TV show," said Nixon, "but they did such a good job with it. It can be a little jarring because it is a strange hybrid."
Nixon, who plays Miranda Hobbes on "Sex and the City," said it didn't feel very good to play the cuckolded wife in the first act, which ends with her deciding to divorce her philandering husband. But she said the second act was liberating.
"It's fun to be more world-weary, cynical, smoking and drinking," she said. "It's a fun place to be."
The cast also features Hallie Kate Eisenberg -- best known to TV viewers as the young star of Pepsi commercials -- in her first stage role. Even at the relatively tender age of 9, Eisenberg seems to understand what "The Women" is mainly about.
"Some women can be like best friends," she said, "and some can be your worst friends."