It may be public television, but it won't be pubic television.
When PBS broadcasts the Roundabout Theatre Company's The Women on May 29, the production's most talked-about moment will still happen, but TV viewers won't see what visitors to the American Airlines Theatre did. Although Clare Booth Luce's once-shocking text is free of harsh profanity, Scott Elliott's production had a moment of full frontal nudity followed by an extremely vulgar (but audience rousing) pun.
WNET's Judy Kinberg, producer of the upcoming broadcast, told Playbill On-Line (Jan. 24), "The scene is as it always is, but there won't be full frontal nudity. They were shooting from a different angle but in such a way as to still retain the original vision. And Scott Elliott was in close collabaration on this, so that the integrity and true meaning of the moment will not have changed."
PBS has been something of a trailblazer for this sort of thing, harking back to its 1970s broadcast of Bruce Jay Freedman's play Steambath, wherein Valerie Perrine showed off more than her talent — albeit less of her flesh than The Women's Jennifer Tilly. Asked why Broadway could see a sudsy Tilly from head to foot while the rest of America can't, Kinberg replied, "For a show like this, with these kinds of stars, we hope to have maximum amount of people watch it. We hope the audience will be very broad, especially for public television, which is free, unlike cable. Some stations just wouldn't run The Women if there was frontal nudity in it."
Jason Alexander (Jerome Robbins' Broadway, "Seinfeld," "Duckman") will host the PBS broadcast of The Women, which taped its final performance, Jan. 13. The show started previews Oct. 12, opened Nov. 8 and enjoyed a couple of extensions before shuttering, first to Dec. 30, then Jan. 6. At its close, The Women notched 28 previews and 77 regular performances, according to spokespersons at Boneau/Bryan-Brown. Kristen Johnston starred as Sylvia Fowler, the most cosmopolitan and conniving of the play's many distaff schemers, gossips and cheats. Purportedly a good friend to Mary Haines, the virtuous and suffering wife played by Cynthia Nixon, Sylvia nevertheless talks endless dirt about her pal, who is in danger of losing her husband (never seen) to the cheap and flashy shop girl Crystal. Jennifer Tilly, no stranger to cheap and flashy roles ("Bullets Over Broadway," "Bound"), played the vulgar counter jumper.
Filling up this melodrama's background were Rue McClanahan as the joyful divorcee Countess De Lage, Amy Ryan as Peggy, Mary Louise Wilson as Mrs. Morehead, Lynne Collins as Miriam, Jennifer Coolidge as Edith and Lisa Emery as Nancy.
All the major players were well schooled in the repartee and casual insults that make up the meat of Luce's script. Nixon thrusts and parries in an eternal battle of the sexes as Miranda in the popular cable series,"Sex and the City." McClanahan got off her share of snappy ripostes in television's long-running "The Golden Girls" (a sort of Luce lite for the senior set). Wilson played, in Full Gallop, fashion doyen Diana Vreeland, a woman well acquainted with the Ladies Who Lunch and rarely at a loss for words. And Johnston played an Amazon alien magpie on "Third Rock from the Sun" up until last season.
Television producer Kinberg noted that because the show's dialogue is very fast and material so personal, "The intimacy of the TV camera works very well for this production."
For the production, the dames were all draped in costumes by ready-to wear celebrity, and sometime cabaret artist, Isaac Mizrahi. Derek McLane (sets), Brian MacDevitt (lighting) and Douglas J. Cuomo (sound) were the other designers.
Director Scott Elliott is founding and artistic director of The New Group Theater Company. His Broadway credits include the Tony Award-nominated Present Laughter and Three Sisters.
The original 1936 Broadway staging ran 657 performances. Rosalind Russell filled the part of Sylvia Fowler in the well known 1939 George Cukor film (which also had Norma Shearer as Mary and Joan Crawford as Crystal, as well as Paulette Goddard). In the play, Sylvia sends innocent Mary to her gossipy manicurist, Olga, knowing Olga will talk about the affair Mary's husband is having. In Reno, for a residency and a quick divorce, Mary communes with other divorcees.
Clare Booth (1903-1987) was a playwright, journalist, novelist, first U.S. Congresswoman from Connecticut and Ambassador to Italy. She was born in New York City. In 1935, after a divorce, she married Henry Luce, co founder of Time Magazine and later Life Magazine. In 1941 Clare Boothe Luce agreed to run for political office, filling the seat held by her late stepfather. She won the election and in 1949 was re-elected. At the request of President Eisenhower, she was named Ambassador to Italy in 1946. She was a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan. Her life was the basis of the satiric Dawn Powell novel, "A Time to Be Born."
—By David Lefkowitz
and Robert Simonson