4 May 2003 | El Cine
Unlike Countess de Lage, "The Women" is only a lightweight
The premise behind PBS' "Stage on Screen" -- recording a live performance of a Broadway play and broadcasting it for TV viewers at home -- is wonderful. But the source material for this particular episode isn't. The other episode I've seen, "The Man Who Came to Dinner" with Nathan Lane, gave me a great chance to "attend" Broadway and enjoy a quality production. But it had quality not just because the performers, sets, costumes, etc. were good, but because the script had something going for it.
Led to expect the original play of "The Women" to be a profound satire loaded with saucy wit, I found that the smart jokes are actually spread real thin, with lots of dead dialogue. But the melodrama is syrup-thick, to my surprise. The whole thing ends up in a shape resembling a comedy-drama, and an awkward one at that. At one point you'll watch one of the many ashen scenes with Mary Haines suffering the pain of losing her husband to a younger, prettier floozy. Then suddenly Luce throws in a quick low humor routine right at its heels. Fortunately, most of the actresses go into high gear to emphasize the humorous hypocrisy and silliness of their characters. But the script just isn't that funny. Most of the humor consists of familiar, basic gags (e.g. the elderly divorcée hunting for #5) or random bits done by minor players in the many throwaway roles. I can picture the playwright going, "Hmm, what else can I do to punch up this scene and kill twelve more seconds? Oh, why don't I have a Russian seamstress come in and do a silly walk...", after which the seamstress promptly disappears for the rest of the play. Many other minor bits, like Mr. Haines' officious secretary, fall flat.
At any rate, the jokes are outnumbered by the minutes spent on the heavy, "realistic" themes of Mary's heartbreak and divorce. The Mary character is rather a wet blanket, and with most of the attention on Mary and her soap opera plot line, the watching becomes tedious. This is not helped by Cynthia Nixon's portrayal of the character as weepy, oblivious, and ghostly-voiced; it makes her kind of creepy, really. But since the role seems lame from square one, any actress would be hard-pressed to make it interesting. (I haven't seen the 1939 film and don't know how they went about the character and script in that one.)
While all this goes on, you realize that the self-serious play doesn't have anything really notable to say. Perhaps the playwright's career at Vanity Fair and her marriage to the Time-Life mogul helped her get this work off the ground. Hey, if so, it would demonstrate what she presented in her play: women aim to marry rich, powerful men to get the comfort and privileges they want!
One other odd bit of fun. If you watch the PBS presentation, stay for the intermission discussion between program host Jason Alexander and the group of actresses. Things take a bizarre, surreal turn when Alexander, speaking in all seriousness and in confidential tones, gives a lesson on how to deal with marital infidelity, or an "accident" as he calls it. I think it went something like, "If you've had an accident, just forget about it and get over the guilt. But if you're thinking of *having* an accident, then we need to talk."