Marian Seldes and Angela Lansbury
in Deuce
(© Joan Marcus)
Marian Seldes and Angela Lansbury
in Deuce
(© Joan Marcus)
Although Terrence McNally's Deuce is about tennis, there's no play unfolding -- literally or figuratively. Instead, the so-called theatrical enterprise currently taking up space at the Music Box, directed by Tony Award winner Michael Blakemore, is simply a chance for Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes to while away a sound-effects-underscored 90 minutes as, respectively, long-retired doubles champions Leona Mullen and Margaret "Midge" Barker.

McNally's exercise is so devoid of drama and wit -- okay, a few of the tennis in-jokes land -- that many a theatergoer who's just forked over a tidy sum to watch it flare and fizzle has every right to wonder why these great ladies of the theater have agreed to appear onstage in it. A cynic might suggest that they did so for the money, but let's agree that neither Lansbury nor Seldes has ever manifested that crass motive in the projects they've chosen over their many, many performing years.

Instead, there are probably three reasons for their saying yes to this major disappointment. The first is that they get to sit center stage for just about the entire time, purportedly watching a big-stadium match at the end of which they're to be honored. During this reunion, each of them stands only to remove a jacket (provided by costumer Ann Roth) or to step off a few feet so the other can deliver a revealing monologue. No physical exertion is required beyond occasionally turning their heads quickly from side to side to follow the never-seen-but-often-heard tennis match that's meant to be taking place before them.

The second explanation has to be that, approximately every 10 minutes, a character identified only as "An Admirer" (played by Michael Mulheren, looking more like a football fan than a visitor to the U.S. Open) strides from stage left to rhapsodize about the Mullen-Barker prowess and to lament that their supernal tandem style is no more. It doesn't take too much savvy to figure out that Deuce really represents McNally's lace-and-perfume valentine to legendary theater players like Lansbury and Seldes. What actor wouldn't want to bask in that acclaim, guaranteeing as it does a standing ovation at the curtain call?

The third and perhaps even more likely explanation is that Deuce provides these ladies the chance to finally work with one another, which they do well. Their polished serve-and-volley sees them through helium-light chitchat about their different personalities, the demise of the more genteel tennis they played back in the day, their deceased husbands and grown children, their continuing good health, their thoughts about whether or not the other was a lesbian, and other equally bland subject matter.

How low will McNally scoop for a laugh? He tosses in a few obscenities so patrons can titter at Lansbury and Seldes saying the f-word and the c-word -- more than once. However, the pros don't get to sing Jerry Herman's "Bosom Buddies," which Lansbury introduced with Bea Arthur in Mame and which McNally's piece is something of an attempt to flesh out.

Both women, looking relaxed on Peter J. Davison's stylized bleachers and in front of Sven Ortel's projections depicting a cheering crowd, glide through the proceedings with the onstage strengths and charms they've honed over the past seven decades. While the advance buzz had it that these ladies-of-a-certain-age were encountering trouble remembering lines and, on top of that, couldn't be heard past the fifth row, it's not currently so in either case. (Yes, the ladies are miked.)

The cast is rounded out by Joanna P. Adler and Brian Haley as a pair of inane sportscasters confined to an elevated booth. Condolences to both of them for braving intervals that are as lame as an athlete with a popped hamstring and that must exist solely for the downtime they afford Lansbury and Seldes.

Ultimately, Deuce is nothing more than a throwback to those old Broadway star vehicles that were often quite classy excuses for showing off an actress in fancy dress and a mediocre play. Unfortunately, this vehicle built for two has come off the assembly line with a commodious front seat but no wheels.