“What becomes a legend most?” For an in the flesh answer travel to West 45th Street in New York where a true legend, Angela Lansbury, is making her eagerly awaited return to Broadway in a first rate production of Te
rrence McNally’s latest offering Deuce, a fictitious comedy about arguably the greatest women’s doubles team in tennis history.. Lansbury, the musical actress, and McNally, the prolific playwright, need little introduction to Broadway audiences having each won four Tony Awards, but the fact that Lansbury, at 83, hasn’t appeared in a production here for 25 years has become a cause to celebrate.
Angela Lansbury is an international star, who made her Broadway debut in 1957, but she is best known to the world as Jessica Fletcher, the mystery writer amateur sleuth she played for twelve consecutive years on the television series “Murder She Wrote.” In the process, the she won four Golden Globe Awards to go with her Tonys, but the actress, who in1982 was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame, is most assuredly known to Broadway audiences for her unprecedented four Tony Awards as Best Actress in a Musical. Her first win was in the unforgettable 1966 classic musical Mame. Her other memorable wins were as the Madwoman of Chaillot in Dear World (1968), as Mama Rose in the l974 revival of Gypsy, and as Mrs. Lovett in the landmark musical Sweeny Tood (1979).
Lansbury is joined by another Tony Award winner, the beloved Marian Seldes, who at 79, is only 4 years her junior. Seldes just recently appeared at Primary Stages last season in Terrence McNally’s Dedication, or the Stuff of Dreams. She is a hard working veteran well known to theater audiences, and was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1996. Although she has performed numerous diverse roles on and off Broadway, she has carved a reputation of almost mystic stature for her coolly elegant characters, her penetrating wit and impeccable comic timing.
When the curtain rises the two actresses are seated in chairs along side each other, and before they even make a move or say a word are greeted with intense prolonged applause that seems to come in interminable waves of loves across the footlights. The ovation is astounding, a loving well deserved tribute, but the euphoric moment may very well be the highlight of a rather tame evening that is more about what gifted actors bring to the play than insightful theater.
Mr. McNally won his Tony awards for his plays Master Class and Love! Valour! Compassion! and for his books for the musicals Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman. The accomplished playwright has also created the thought provoking comic dramas Lips Together Teeth Apart and Frankie and Johnny in the Clare de Lune, but Deuce is slight, indeed, by comparison. In his most recent works Mr. McNally appears to be resting on the laurels of his well established fame and while his Deuce is well crafted, the comedy seemingly exists as a vehicle for the two grand dames, with an eye to the box office clout of Lansbury. Having already established a healthy advance, Deuce may prove itself a financial winner despite the play’s shortcomings.
Michael Blakemore directs the story efficiently at a brisk pace, but nothing much happens, so the evening never really takes off. The women haven’t seen each other in 10 years, but there are no dark secrets to reveal, and little is at stake. They reminisce about their glory days drawing comparisons to tennis today and how the current crop of champions have it easy with the technological advancements and astronomical prize money.
The two actresses still at the top of their game make a dynamic duo and their work here is vibrant and winning as the champion doubles team. Lansbury plays Leona Mullen the feisty half of that team and Seldes is her ex partner the more refined Midge Barker. They personify “star power” in the flesh and their mega watt gifts squeeze non existent nuance from Mr. McNally’s rather slim tennis satire. Although the drama doesn’t serve the stars well and fails as drama, you certainly can’t fault the ladies, who deliver well placed aces.
gordin & christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
Deuce opened on Broadway May 6, 2007 at the Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenues. Tickets are available by calling 239-6200 or by visiting the box office.