Friday, July 6, 2007

Anyone for tennis?

Outside the Music Box Theatre, where Deuce is playing, are framed collages of the play's two stars, Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes, in various poses and costumes, as they appeared in...other plays. A career retrospective, in fact, for each woman, in the spot you would expect to find a photo or two from this production. Deuce has no real costume or set changes, and there are no fistfights, showdowns or dance numbers, so I suppose there is a limit to the number of interesting production photos one could display. But still, it seems an odd way to promote a new play. "Remember how good these actors were in other things?" the collages seem to say. "Well...this is what they're in right now!"

Under the circumstances, it's not a totally unreasonable strategy. I haven't heard a good word yet about Terrence McNally's play, and the chance to see Angela and Marian was what finally brought me to the theatre. But it still feels a bit unseemly for a play on Broadway, even one as bad as this (and it is bad... but I'm getting to that), to have so little faith in itself. It's also a dangerous strategy to remind people of plays like A Delicate Balance and Dinner at Eight and musicals like Sweeney Todd and Gypsy just before you send them in to watch the latest half-baked comedy from Terrence McNally. Given what I'd heard about Deuce, I feared I would find myself wishing I were watching any one of those other shows instead. In fact, by the 60-minute mark, I was wishing I were back out on the sidewalk looking at the photographs. In other words, the collages alone were more absorbing than this play. (And I am not being glib -- for example, did you know Angela Lansbury was in The King and I? She replaced Constance Towers in the 1977 revival! What wouldn't I give to see that. Just the photo is fascinating: she's standing there with "Louie," both of them looking very 1970s, in that way "period" costumes and hairdos from the '70s always look more like the '70s than like the period they are meant to evoke. And Angela has a very Mrs. Lovett-esque expression on her face, and it looks just like an image from a Forbidden Broadway sketch. And that's just one photo! I'm telling you, take a walk down 45th St.; these collages are worth checking out.)

As for Deuce, well, how this play ended up on Broadway is a mystery to me. What made Terrence McNally think it would be a good play, and what made other people agree with him once he'd written it -- these are questions I cannot answer. In reality, the play is every bit as boring as the plot summary (two former women's tennis doubles partners sit in the stands at the U.S. Open and discuss their championship careers) would suggest. Very little actually happens; the dialogue is a good 85 percent exposition, and nothing it reveals is worth getting excited about. The women take turns mentioning things about their shared past, or their individual pasts, or their present lives, and sometimes -- just for variety -- one will stand still in low light while the other one tells us what she thinks of her. Sometimes we hear from a pair of sportscasters (Joanna P. Adler and Brian Haley, both trying too hard to make their banter sound like anything other than pure exposition), who supply us with more tennis stats and biographical details, and sometimes "an admirer" (a restrained Michael Mulheren) pops up, in his own ill-defined space, to drive home the point that these two women were really, really great at tennis. Throughout all this, the audience waits in vain for someone to mention something just a tiny bit dramatic; some reason to sit still and watch what happens next. But unless you think watching people wonder aloud, "Do we ever really know each other?" is the stuff of great drama, you won't find much to hold on to here. If these tennis players were real women, you would wonder why anyone thought their stories would make a good play. Knowing they are fictional creations makes the play's limpness all the more bewildering.

Still, Angela Lansbury -- there's something worth getting excited about. Early reports (from other bloggers) suggested she was embarrassing herself here -- forgetting her lines, getting lost, depending on Seldes to rescue her. Perhaps that was the case in previews, but things are under control now; at least, if she's still flubbing lines, she covered too fluidly for me to notice (and we, the restless audience, would probably have welcomed any departure from the script). Yes, I wished I were seeing her in something, anything, else, but even here, what a joy she is to watch. She finds her character, Leona, in every line, and she wrings every laugh out of McNally's weak jokes. Watching her, you feel the play may spring to life at any moment. To come so close to animating this deadweight of a play is more than enough justification for that Tony nomination.

Marian Seldes is no slouch herself, of course, but she plays her character, Midge, gravely, with less sparkle. To be fair, this approach is entirely true to the character, but as has already been established -- by me, by every other critic, and by the theatre's own exterior -- the play is not the main attraction here. I'd prefer to see her have a little more fun, especially since her attempt to find depth in the role only calls attention to the shallowness of the script.

If, like me, you've never had the pleasure of seeing Angela Lansbury perform live, you might want to take advantage of this opportunity. The final scene (so to speak), when the women address their audience in the stands, is a delight almost worth sitting through the preceding 80 minutes. Not that it's well written -- it isn't, any more than the rest of the play -- but watching Lansbury and Seldes go all self-conscious as they speak into the microphone, their fine technique expanding to accomodate broad comedy, is a rare pleasure. If only Deuce had a few more moments like that. It would still be forgettable, but it would be a lot more fun.

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