Once more to the precipice with Ann Beattie, whose fascination with people at or near the ends of their ropes continues in "Weekend," the first produced script by the talented novelist and short-story writer. The one-hour taped drama airs tonight, as the latest entry from the admirably eclectic "American Playhouse" series, on Channel 26 and other PBS stations at 9.

Beattie adapted "Weekend" from her own short story about an apparently emblematic, appalling occurrence in the lives of Lenore and George, a predominantly doleful couple who have lived together for years without getting married and even had two children in the process. George is a self-absorbed academic who seems to find it more a compulsive necessity than a tantalizing challenge to seduce a coed now and then, and to do so without much of a stab at subterfuge.

For the weekend, the currently desirable Sarah and her friend Julie have been invited out to the house. The festivities will include a child's birthday party, a prized bottle of Beaujolais and an embarrassing display of the old masculine initiative by George. The flirtation obviously means a great deal to him; it may be as close as he gets these days to grand gestures. And Lenore tolerates it, though not painlessly, and even consoles George when it goes clunkily awry.

"You went too far," she tells him after Sarah and Julie have bolted into the evening fog. "The only one you can go too far with is me." That may be as good a definition of love, or something, as has lately been uttered in a play on television. "Weekend" is concerned with the importance of impressions; Lenore, who dabbles in photography, is understandably drawn to the preferable sane alternative that her photographs offer as an antidote to a less controllable reality.

There is always more to Beattie's work than despair, though her characters usually find themselves in dire straits they either designed for themselves or had custom-made by others. In her elegantly spare New Yorker prose, and in her novels "Falling in Place" and "Chilly Scenes of Winter," Beattie curries favor with no reader; it's always a take-me-or-leave-me proposition, and one may find this a sign of integrity or arrogance or a combination of both, but one thing it's not, ever, is self-indulgent.

A writer can't really take that tack with theater, though, especially theater for television; the needs and demands of an audience must be taken into account. For that reason, it's especially fortuitous that Paul Bogart, unfailingly proficient as a TV storyteller, was chosen to direct this script (he also directed, and helped humanize, the opening "American Playhouse" show, John Cheever's "Shady Hill Kidnapping"). Bogart enhances Beattie's clinical clarity with his own seasoned warmth. Artiness would have rendered "Weekend" inert, and there is no false artiness here.

Bogart did contribute a bittersweet montage of old photographs which recalls George and Lenore's earlier, happier days late in the play, and it's astute punctuation. It also turns what had been a good play into real television, and it's entirely consistent with the characters', and the author's, concern for How Things Look. Not only may appearances be deceiving, but they aren't the easiest things in the world to keep up. For George and Lenore, maybe for zillions of other couples, keeping up an appearance is a life's work, a creative endeavor. Living a lie can be a unifying undertaking for two people who have otherwise tired each other out.

The actors make the most of the measured opportunities Beattie gives them. Tony Musante's George is more than a macho cliche' (and if there is a feminist subtext to this play, at least it remains camouflaged; Beattie deals with people, not "issues"). Barbara Hershey demonstrates a seemingly newfound precision and authority as Lenore. Helen Hunt as Sarah has an innocent sort of seductiveness, but she is somewhat overshadowed by Kaki Hunter as Sarah's friend Julie. It is hard to imagine a better reading than Hunter's of a key line of dialogue after George's inevitable blunder: "I just want it not to have happened."

Ann Blumenthal and Phylis Geller, the producers, did an immaculate job, and art director Charles Lisanby built George and Lenore an ideal house in which to wither away. Carla Blay adapted and performs the music of 18th-century composer William Boyce, making it uncannily appropriate and haunting. It may seem presumptuous to call something "Weekend" when Jean-Luc Godard already used the title for a film (possibly his best film), but there is a reference to the film in the play, so it is given an added irony.

A reviewer who is personally acquainted with the author of a work under consideration should admit it, and, as almost never happens, that is the case here; I have known, and been hopelessly enamored of, Ann Beattie for many years. But if I didn't know her, I would still be drawn to the sensibility behind her work, so knowing her, while a great pleasure, would seem to be irrelevant. Besides, people fall in love with her through her writing all the time; not knowing her is no protection.