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A CurtainUp Review

I loathe deuce. It's so undecisive. I'd rather lose than be stuck at deuce—Leona
I always found deuce rather exciting. You're standing on the brink of utter triumph or utter annihilation—Midge
A note for people unfamiliar with tennis terminology: Tennis scoring proceeds in points from love (or zero) to 15, 30 and 40. If two players have scored three points or deuce and the score remains tied, it is described as "deuce" no matter how many points are scored.

Angela Lansbury & Marian Seldes in Deuce
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The theater doesn't escape life's little ironies. Deuce, written by Terrence McNally to bring two of the theater's leading golden agers —Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes— on stage together was initially scheduled to close the Primary Stages season at 59E59Theaters. The excitement stirred up by these thespians' many fans, ended up moving Deuce to Broadway, leaving Primary Stages subscribers understandably disappointed to be offered Athol Fugard's Exits and Entrances, a backstage story starring two actors whose fame hardly rivaled those two grand dames.

As luck would have it, Exits and Entrances turned out to be anything but a disappointment. Audiences and critics liked it a lot and it won an Outstanding Off-Broadway Play nomination from the Outer Critics Circle. So what about Deuce? Lansbury and Seldes are incapable of giving anything but master class performances, but, alas, Terrence McNally has written them a wilted bouquet of a play that validates the old poker expression "Deuce always loses."

Nothing wrong with McNally's concept: It's a play about two former champion tennis doubles partners who are reunited at a U.S Open match at which they are being honored for their contribution to the game. Bringing these racquet wielding pioneers out of retirement presents an opportunity to combine their personal stories and ruminate on the changes in professional sports, specifically, the game of which these women were an integral part for thirty years. What IS wrong is that Mr. McNally has taken the easiest, most obvious route for developing this setup into a play with substance worthy of Lansbury's and Seldes' talents. And so, like the match at which Leona Mullen (Lansbury) double faults and the streak of wins she and partner Midge Barker (Seldes) enjoyed, McNally too has double faulted. Instead of gifting Lansbury and Seldes with a play on a par with his best work (Master Class, Love, Valor & Compassion, Frankie and Johnny and the Claire de Lune), he has relied on them to find the meat on the rather bare theatrical bone he has provided.

If you subscribe to the notion that some actors would be worth the price of a ticket even if they were reading from the telephone book, you'll want to join the audiences who have been greeting Lansbury and Seldes with more rousing and longer welcoming applause than any in recent history. And in fairness to Mr. McNally, Deuce is a lot more entertaining than either the white or yellow pages. What's more it's been given a first-class production — a snazzy set (Peter J. Davison) with video projections (Sven Ortel) of spectators at a huge stadium and a sound design that evokes the tension of a highly charged game. Mark Henderson's lighting and Ann Roth's flattering costumes complete the visual pleasures. The fast-paced aura is reflected in Michael Blakemore's pacey direction.

While Deuce is all about Lansbury and Seldes, it's not quite a two-hander. Michael Mullheren shows up as a nameless adoring fan who tells us — as if we needed telling— to look closely and appreciatively at Leona and Midge (and by extension the two stage veterans playing them) since "you will not see their likes again." Two other actors, Brian Haley and Joanna P. Adler, pop up behind a scrim far above the projected crowd scene, as bubble headed former tennis pros turned broadcast commentators.

Most of the 90 intermissionless minutes focus on Midge and Leona in their Grandstand seats. Like Vanessa Redgrave in The Year of Magical Thinking they only get up once. However, there's plenty of head turning and body language for Lansbury and Seldes to individualize their characters and enliven their reminiscences. These run the gamut from their personal lives, tennis world gossip, opinions on changes in the game (especially the commercialism and big money that wasn't a factor in their day). Oh, and being in their seventies, you can expect more than a passing mention of the Grim Reaper.

Like her character, the more aggressive Leona who was apparently good enough to have been a singles as well as doubles champion, Lansbury probably has the meatier part lending itself to something close to a fully rounded character. However, Seldes is no wallflower and both women make the most of every moment — whether during occasional monologues or exchanges filled with warmth and sympathy or revealing less tranquil undercurrents in their relationship.

Mr. McNally has peppered his script with a smigen of the at once funny and touching dialogue he's known for and the charismatic actresses land every line in keeping with their stage personalities— Lansbury's Lorena wry and a tad raunchy, Seldes' Park Avenue raised Midge prim but hardly stuffy. For the first half hour the performers and the classy scenery keep you amused and attentive but even these wonderful old pros can't keep this play from getting stuck at deuce. Mulheren is wasted as the cloyingly adoring fan and the two actors playing the broadcasters are sufficiently annoying that you wish you had a zapper to turn them off.

Both actresses look terrific. I can't think of another pair of troupers who could extract so much nourishing marrow from such a bare bone. Leona and Midge's triumphs may be over, but Marion and Angela are still at the top of their game.
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Directed by Michael Balakemore
Cast: Angela Lansbury (Leona Mullen), Marian Seldes (Midge Barker), Joanna P. Adler (Kelly Short), Brian Haley (Ryan Becker), Michael Mulhere (An Admirer)
Sets: Peter J. Davison .
Costumes: Ann Roth
Lights: Mark Henderson.
Sound:Paul Charlier
Video and Projection Design: Sven Ortel
Running Time: 100 minutes, with no intermission.
Music Box, 239 W. 45th St., (Broadway/8th Av)
From 4/30/07 to 8/19/07; opening 5/06.
Tuesday - Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 3pm
Tickets: $96 to $76.50.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on May 9th
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