Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 6, 2007
Deuce by Terrence McNally. Directed by Michael Blakemore. Set design by Peter J. Davison. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Mark Henderson. Video and projection design by Sven Ortel. Sound design by Paul Charlier. Cast: Angela Lansbury, Marian Seldes, with Joanna P. Adler, Brian Haley, Michael Mulheren.
Coming from most playwrights and featuring most casts, an idea this wispy would be instantly written off by most as hyper-adulatory nonsense more befitting a club engagement than Broadway. But when it’s a love you share entering the theater, and the playwright, stars, and director, spend 90 minutes cultivating it further, it somehow doesn’t seem like a wholly terrible concept. And when the stars in question are Marian Seldes and Angela Lansbury, it almost even seems like a good one.
Let’s get it out of the way immediately: You should not attend Deuce in hopes of seeing these two estimable actresses do the finest work of their careers in intricately crafted roles as “the two greatest doubles players in the history of women’s tennis.” Nor, for that matter, should you go expecting to learn anything at all about tennis. Neither comes close to happening.
No, whatever Deuce claims as its subject, in truth it’s about nothing more or less than celebrating the eternal glory of the Broadway star. Seen that way, it can be a completely enjoyable 90-minute outing, if always considerably less “theatre” than longtime McNally fans might hope. The playwright has delved into diva worship before, most significantly in Master Class, which embellished (and slightly fictionalized) the real-life Maria Callas into a titanic heroine capable of exploring the frightening heights and uncertainties of stardom. Here, though, McNally is content to let Seldes and Lansbury - not their characters, Margaret “Midge” Barker and Leona Mullen - do all the talking.
The two have faded from the spotlight in the 30 years since their careers ended, but they’ve lost none of the pluck that put them there in the first place. From their position in a stadium box, where they watch two current champs strut their stuff before they’re to receive public recognition for their own accomplishments, they have an excellent vantage point for seeing how the game has changed and how far they’ve come in their own lives.
First, the two must catch up; it’s been over 10 years since they last saw each other. And in the course of doing so, they relive stories of their triumphs, their tragedies (including Leona’s catastrophic double fault at the Australian open), and the romances they’ve let define them over their six-decade history together. They must even contend with an avid fan desiring their autographs (Michael Mulheren), and be worked over by two suitably inane commentators (Brian Haley and Joanna P. Adler) up in the booth.
Though their conversation scales the full history of women’s tennis, as well as the evolution of sports in general into a robotic, endorsement-driven phenomenon, it’s all mostly perfunctory. McNally limits the women to general comments about the increasing invisibility age encourages and laments that sound more the stuff of greeting cards than a friendship that’s spanned over half a century; “It wasn’t the racquets that were too big for us, it was the dreams,” says Midge in one of her typically obvious realizations.
But if McNally gives you little real idea of who the women are at their core, as played by Seldes and Lansbury, you understand them better than you otherwise might. There’s a bit of a disconnect at first because the regal Lansbury (looking especially queenly in the red dress provided her by costume designer Ann Roth) is the poor, potty-mouthed, Pittsburgh-born Leona, and because quintessential quipmistress Seldes is the reserved, grandmotherly Midge, the opposite of what you might predict. Yet neither needs much else to convince you she once reigned supreme in the sports world, the crucial trait both characters must possess.
Seldes and Lansbury share no particular rapport and establish few additional specifics about their characters; they’re more or less coasting on their forceful, pre-honed personas, rather than minting new ones more appropriate for these women. Yet even when you feel you’re watching the actresses (which is most of the time), the situations - and thus the play - are not a challenge to accept, because they steer their familiar personalities so well.
The other elements of the production falter from the lack of that star power: None of their castmates make even half as much with roles that are just as blandly written, Michael Blakemore’s direction is matter-of-fact in its routine nature, and while the design evokes a real stadium atmosphere (the set is by Peter J. Davison, the lights by Mark Henderson, the projections by Sven Ortel, and the sometimes overwhelming sound by Paul Charlier) it all seems half-formed, as if it will disappear the moment Midge and Leona do.
It’s hard to imagine a better metaphor for the evanescent nature of the stage actor’s art, which makes Seldes and Lansbury, who are absolutely intertwined with contemporary theatrical history, so indispensible here. Their characters’ monologues (each has one, of notable length), about how they perceive themselves as still fitting into the world or comparing with the other, might seem pedestrian in word and sentiment, but both actresses imbue them with a plaintive inevitability that makes you sit up and take note. Again, not for what’s being said, but who’s saying it.
Coming from actresses who’ve staked their claims to immortality in shows like Mame and Sweeney Todd for Lansbury and A Delicate Balance and Deathtrap for Seldes, that’s not insignificant. When Mulheren reverently says at evening’s end, “Look at them … You will not see their likes again,” there’s no denying he’s right. You can’t help but wish McNally had made that statement more applicable to Midge and Leona than Seldes and Lansbury, but the latter two are more than enough even if the rest of Deuce is not.