Two legendary actresses (real) playing two legendary tennis players (fictional) - "Deuce" should have been a grand slam at the Music Box Theatre last night. Instead it was a double-fault.
And the double-fault was certainly not made by the actresses, for even the brilliant stereo sound effect of unseen bouncing tennis balls was far more impressive than the play itself, which our misguided heroines exuberantly bounced across.
Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes have done the stage some service, and their names are such that theater marquees automatically light up nightly in their honor, and box-office lines form in meek yet justified accordance.
Playwright Terrence McNally is normally no slouch, either. And British director Michael Blakemore - the only person ever to win two Tony Awards in the same season for staging both a play and musical - is also a past master far from past it.
So what happened? Unfortunately, nothing! Nothing happened.
The 81-year-old Lansbury and the 78-year-old Seldes could read the proverbial Forest Hills or even the Flushing Meadows telephone directory and make it sound like ... well, like something more than just a telephone directory.
But that's no reason why a group of producers - nine by my count, and led by Scott Rudin, himself moderately legendary - should make them do it, or persuade a paying audience to watch them doing it.
Now, according to "Deuce" these tennis divas - improbably, although in fiction I suppose not impossibly - ruled women's doubles until their retirement in 1976.
There isn't much like their careers in real tennis history - perhaps the recent reign of Mike and Bob Bryan in men's doubles offers some kind of precedent - but let's accept that here they are, and they are invited to take one last hurrah at this year's U.S. Open.
They haven't met for about 10 years, and while they watch a women's singles match - that's the to-and-fro sound of the unseen whizzing ball - they gossip companionably about their long past and, less companionably, about their obviously far shorter future.
Meanwhile the playwright has arranged for an Admirer (a suitably abashed Michael Mulheren) and two nattering twits in the Broadcast Box (Brian Haley and Joanna P. Adler) to set the scene and tell the story of their past glories.
McNally, 67, normally one of our best and certainly one of our most reliable playwrights, may have written a worse play, even one with such minimal plotting and languid, desultory writing, but I can't recall it.
It's a short but long haul - no intermission, so no one's inclined to leave - and Lansbury and Seldes go at it with such endearing professionalism and wondrous skill, that their mighty efforts to make a house not just without bricks but even without straw are truly admirable.
A glance here, a special line-reading there - Seldes, brittle, haughty, self-aware, and Lansbury, expansive yet withdrawn, open and yet cagey - the two of them act wonderfully in a phantom play that just isn't there.
For when the pings of a tennis-ball hitting an invisible court (sound design is by Paul Charlier) are the most dramatic things that go bump in the night, then everyone's in trouble.
It is comforting to be able to assure someone, even a fictional character, that her greatest fear is unfounded. In "Deuce," the flimsy excuse for a comedy by Terrence McNally at the Music Box Theater, Leona Mullen, a tennis player in her early 70s, worries that old age is turning her into the sort of woman that people look right through. "I am not invisible," she says.
No, you certainly are not, Leona. After all, you are being portrayed by an actress who, though roughly a decade older than you, is the least invisible person on Broadway at the moment. After an absence of nearly 25 years Angela Lansbury has returned to the New York stage. And she is so vitally and indelibly present that she even occasionally gives flesh to a playas wispy as ectoplasm.
"Deuce," which opened last night in a production that also stars the formidable Marian Seldes, is a jerry-built shrine to enduring star power. Ms. Lansbury and Ms. Seldes, directed by Michael Blakemore, portray a famous former doubles team, vestiges of an era when talent meant more than image, reunited to be honored at the United States Open.
The occasion allows Mr. McNally to wax prosaic with nostalgic hymns to these athletes, designed to pluck upon our feelings about the actresses who play them. Most of these encomiums fall to an everyman fan (Michael Mulheren) who provides choral commentary on the "unexplainable, inexplicable genius" that made these women the last of a race of giants.
"An autograph, a photo, our memory - they're all we have of people like these," he says. "When we're gone, they're gone, too." And when the lights come up on Ms. Lansbury and Ms. Seldes, their heads swiveling in rhythm to an unseen tennis volley, the audience deluges them with applause that awards them simply for being there. When the play is over, theatergoers can be heard murmuring, exactly according to script, "Don't they look marvelous?"
Yes, they look great. Ms. Lansbury's face is unmistakably the same that loomed from classic Hollywood movies dating back to the 1940s ("Gaslight," "The Picture of Dorian Gray"), benchmark Broadway musicals ("Mame," "Sweeney Todd") and comfort-food television (the long-running "Murder, She Wrote"). Ms. Seldes's regal profile is as trenchant as it was when she won a Tony Award for "A Delicate Balance" four decades ago.
To their credit, though, neither Ms. Lansbury nor Ms. Seldes is content to pose as a sacred relic in a theatrical cathedral. This is what gives "Deuce" its only real suspense, not the match being watched by Leona Mullen and Midge Barker (Ms. Seldes), or even the implicit battle of wills and conflicting memories.
No, the true tension in "Deuce" arises from the fight between two valiant, vibrant actresses against a swamp of a play that keeps trying to suck the life out of them. And even a director as assured as Mr. Blakemore, who has done so brilliantly by the plays of Michael Frayn, can't make us pretend otherwise.
The script is one long feathery tease that never delivers. We learn early that Leona is the feisty one with a blue-collar background, that Midge is the prim and patrician one, and that they have not seen each other in 10 years. Why the long gap? What secrets have yet to be unearthed?
"I want to know them, understand them, remember them as they are and as they were," says Mr. Mulheren's every-fan in an early scene. Sure, so do we. But by the time Leona, much later, says, "We'll exorcise our demons together, give them what they came for," you know that such promises are empty.
The author of probing comic dramas like "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" and "Frankie and Johnny in the Clare de Lune," Mr. McNally can be a first-rate playwright. But even more than his recent "Some Men," "Deuce" feels lazy. It's a grab bag of synthetic scraps of sentimental truisms and grumpy-old-broad humor.
The play's satire of the commercialization of tennis, embodied by the television commentary of a pair fatuous young players (Brian Haley and Joanna P. Adler), is sub-sitcom. You never feel that "Deuce" is animated by the fanatical appreciation of a sport that Richard Greenberg, for example, brought to baseball in "Take Me Out."
Worse, Leona and Midge emerge as contradictory creatures who keep reversing their opinions and beliefs, as if Mr. McNally had forgotten which character he was writing for. And I don't think this is an intentional comment on the variability of people, meant to underscore observations like, "But does anyone of us ever truly know another?"
That's Midge speaking, in a midplay monologue in which she unburdens her soul to the audience. Ms. Seldes, a natural-born scene stealer who is slightly miscast as the selfeffacing Midge, has the greater share of such unfortunate pronouncements, and she gives them an old pro's theatricality. But she is obviously much happier putting top spins on zingers or delivering low-down words with crisp hauteur.
Ms. Lansbury comes close to creating something like a fully woven character out of the random threads she has been given. It is remarkable that a woman as distinctive looking as Ms. Lansbury, with her Tweety Birdshape face and immense eyes, has always been able to blend so thoroughly into whatever role she plays, from the warm and cozy (Jessica Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote") to the downright evil (the power-crazed mother in "The Manchurian Candidate").
Though she rarely moves from her chair in "Deuce," she still makes you believe Leona pulses with a defiant élan vital that only death could still. You know what Midge means when she says of Leona, "She doesn't look, she devours."
When an actress, no matter her age, convincingly conveys that appetite for life, an audience repays her with similarly voracious attention. Few stars can make a banquet out of table scraps as Ms. Lansbury does.
The last time we saw Angela Lansbury on Broadway, it was 2002 and she played a former theater actress who, after years of television, reminisces on the stage of a condemned New York playhouse.
The occasion, a one-night benefit for the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, was called "Short Talks on the Universe." And Lansbury, who had packed up her four Tony Awards decades earlier to become the iconic lady detective on TV's "Murder, She Wrote," was back for the night to appear in one of the program's playlets, a lump-in-the-throat little Terrence McNally piece called "Ghost Light."
"Hello, is anybody here?" she asked in her instantly familiar Broadway treasure of a voice, then delivered into the stillness a grand soliloquy of mixed emotions about being immortalized by Hollywood and being evanescent onstage. Then she wistfully recalled how it was to "stand here taking a bow." She stood. She took a bow. And we wanted her back.
So now she is back, co-starring with that other consummate pro, Marian Seldes, in a different McNally play. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, we still want her back - but in something that deserves her.
"Deuce," which opened last night at the Music Box, is not nearly the disaster howled about for weeks by the Internet chatterers. What it is, alas, is dull. There are definite pleasures in watching these beloved actresses trying to persuade us - and themselves? - to be fascinated and touched by the reunion of two aging tennis champions being honored at the U.S. Open.
But it would be patronizing to these formidable women to pretend they don't seem wedged into a vehicle too flimsy for their muscle.
McNally, who passionately celebrated the opera diva in "Master Class" and their fans in "The Lisbon Traviata," attempts to use doubles tennis as some sort of metaphor for the game of life. Mostly, he puts words into these women's mouths that - we assume unintentionally - suggest that Leona Mullen (Lansbury) and Midge Barker (Seldes) were emotionally stunted by their pioneering virtuosity.
"Does anyone of us truly know one another?" asks one or the other – it doesn't matter which. "It all goes by so fast and we understand so little," remarks the other one with match-point banality.
At least the women are onstage for the entire 95 minutes. Unfortunately, they are mostly delivering a numbing history of women's tennis, with an occasional chuckle about the lesbians in the game. Director Michael Blakemore keeps the characters seated for so long that we begin to worry that the actresses can't get up. They do finally stand for a moment, thank you very much, each to remove a jacket from what are unusually unflattering outfits by the usually expert Ann Roth.
Those minutes do coincide with the more insightful glimpses into the women, who haven't seen each other since the day 30-some years earlier when Midge mysteriously decided not to continue playing. Time freezes for each to have a monologue - a little funny-catty, a little poignant - about her long-ago partner.
Lansbury plays the raunchy one, a spontaneous cookie from the working-class who lost her first love in a horse accident and has settled in Arizona with a rich but distant second husband. Seldes is the prissier one, raised on Park Avenue and annoyed by Leona's tough talk. For anyone who might be excited by hearing Jessica Fletcher and the original Mrs. Lovett from "Sweeney Todd" say naughty words, this may well be your night.
They look like wildly contrasting species of birds, these women in the good seats of a big stadium (designed by Peter J. Davison) with curving railings and projections of fans in the stands. The women, naturally, glare one way and then the other, as if watching a match. They are both disapproving and envious of the big salaries and endorsements unknown in the early days of women's tennis.
In the middle of the stands is a broadcast booth in which a couple of doofus announcers (Brian Haley and Joanna P. Adler) trip over one another in mildly amusing banter about the legends being honored. Every so often, an Everyman Fan (Michael Mulheren) offers a romantic rhapsody about their legacy. "Look at them," he urges with undisguised reference to the real subject onstage. "You will never see their likes again."
Sure we will, just as soon as they find a better project.
Imagine a ring made of two precious gems set in pewter, and you'll have a sense of the immensely frustrating experience provided by Terrence McNally's Deuce.
The gems would be the stars of this world premiere. which opened Sunday at the Music Box Theatre: the glorious Angela Lansbury, appearing in a Broadway show for the first time in more than 20 years, and another stage treasure, Marian Seldes. The pewter, sadly, would be McNally's play, which might be a forgettable trifle under other circumstances but is, here, a criminal waste of talent.
Deuce takes place entirely during a tennis match, albeit one we don't see, as our focus is on two women of a certain age seated in the stands. Leona Mullen and Midge Barker are a legendary doubles team who last played together three decades ago, and are there to receive a special honor. Before they do, we watch for 90 minutes as Midge and Leona recall old victories, reopen wounds and dish about everything from men and mortality to their successors' exotic names and tacky endorsement deals.
Most of the banter is numbingly trite. whether the subject Is the indignity of old age or the proliferation of lesbians in pro tennis, a topic that McNally milks with a fascination and fervency you'd expect from an old Borscht Belt comedian. The characters are drawn with a similar lack of nuance, as convenient foils: Midge, played by Seldes, is the elegant, well-bred one who scoffs at four-letter words, while Lansbury's Leona is the earthy, scrappy one who uses four-letter words.
Watching the leading ladles try to breathe life and wit into these near-caricatures, you're torn between marveling at the actresses' transcendent grace and wondering what led them-particularly the long-absent Lansbury to take on this project. Perhaps they expected more from McNally, a prolific and generally endearing writer; In that case, many theatergoers will surely empathize.
We feel less keenly for the supporting actors who get to bask in the stars' presence, and share their burden. Joanna P. Adler and Brian Haley playa pair of breathless sports commentators straight out of a Saturday Night Live skit. Michael Mulheren is cast as "an admirer" who embellishes Leona and Midge's observations with even hokier asides.
"Look at them," he tells the audience, "You will not see their likes again." He could just as well be talking about Lansbury and Seldes, who deserve a far better showcase for their gifts.