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MISTY WATERCOLOR MEMORIES, ANYONE?

By BEN BRANTLEY
The New York Times, 5/7/07

 

 

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 play as 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 any one 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 self-effacing 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 Bird-shape 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.

TO READ GUY FLATLEY’S 1974 NEW YORK TIMES INTERVIEW WITH TERRENCE McNALLY, CLICK HERE.