Either the British know how to do it better, or Christopher Hampton's "Tales From Hollywood" (at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15) simply works better in the favored medium of the city that spawned it.
The answer is no doubt a bit of both, but when "Tales" was performed at the Mark Taper Forum in 1980 (commissioned by the Taper's Gordon Davidson), it didn't fly. This account of the cloistered lives of the German emigre intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany for Los Angeles in the late 1930s was a didactic mix of fact and fiction that resisted its play form.
It went on to a 1983 London staging that won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play, which suggests the play may always have been better than its Taper version.
Tonight's "American Playhouse" production, sensitively directed by Howard Davies, owes much to the camera's ability to magnify and focus. It also benefits from a shortened script, but, above all, from a stellar cast.
It's an amazing transformation.
In a story that presumes that Austro-Hungarian playwright Odon von Horvath (Jeremy Irons at his enigmatic best) was \o7 not\f7 killed by a falling branch in Paris in 1938, but instead sailed forth as planned to America, we meet the other German writers through his eyes.
They're a self-important lot, presided over by a ponderous Thomas Mann (Robin Bailey), whose judgmental rigor only makes it tougher on his broken brother Heinrich (Sir Alec Guinness), a sweet man saddled with a restless and much younger alcoholic wife, Nelly (a transcendent performance by Sinead Cusack).
Flickering insalubriously in and out of the action is the long shadow of a corrosive, opportunistic Bertolt Brecht (Jack Shepherd).
Nelly's disintegration and eventual suicide drive the play, whose parallel plot tracks Von Horvath's subdued romance with a Jewish screenwriter (Elizabeth McGovern) and his bemused collisions with the real Hollywood in the person of mogul Charles Money (Charles Durning, by turns cowed and bullying, but always brilliant). Horwath, too, dies, rather flamboyantly. It's a derivative Hollywood ending dripping in irony.
What had once been an awkward play is now an engrossing soap opera of displaced lives, intercut with period newsreel footage and given a surrealistic edge with '40s--style, in-studio shots filmed against rolling landscapes.