Terrence McNally could get anything produced on Broadway, but that doesn't mean he should.
In the case of his latest, the Michael Blakemore-directed Deuce, I would not go so far as to say this tennis-themed show is a double fault. It's more of a frustrating deuce itself—great exercise for two women at the top of their game that nonetheless struggles to produce a win.
Celeste Holm going backstage, fans waiting and the ladies emerging to sign.
I got tickets for tonight, the very first preview, and was hoping to be wowed. Quadruple Tony winner Angela Lansbury is returning to Broadway for the first time since the ill-fated revival of Mame almost 25 years ago, and Marian Seldes is one of our most distinguished living theatre actresses. Along with a sensational pedigree, the show was said to be about living-legend doubles champions reunited after many years, so I was expecting a lot of tension and verbal volleys culminating with one or the other figuratively jumping over the net in victory.
Instead, the show revealed itself to be an easy-to-watch if somewhat static snapshot of two old friends and athletic partners conversing about their past glories, disappointments and personal entanglements with relaxed detachment. Where I had hoped for a terse, wrenching tournament, I got a genial exhibition match.
The setting ensures a show that can’t sustain an intermission (it was about 90 minutes straight through)—the women are reunited as the special guests of a championship match, relegated to history, to watching from boxed seats as younger women slug it out in the game that made them famous and defined their lives together and apart. It’s a wonderful premise, one rich with possibilities that go largely unplumbed.
Both actresses are terrific at creating characters from dialogue that, like the play itself, is too literal to truly capture interest. As Midge Barker, Seldes has an arch self-containment tempered with streaks of practical good humor. She might seem prissy at first, but she has her secrets, as when she fantasizes about throwing her old partner for a loop, reminding us that she’s more than just half of a pair.
Lansbury—looking lovely and only occasionally muffing lines to no great consequence—has the showier role. Leona “Lee” Mullen ‘didn’t used to be a fashion plate so much as a dish’ and has strong opinions on the game of tennis, the usefulness of feminism and her own shortcomings, all of which she punctuates with well-placed “goddamns.”
If the actresses are spectacular, their interaction is no spectacle. Instead, the play has the too-easy feel of reminiscing, something Lee abhors. At one point, Lee says to Midge, “You didn’t marry down—you married a son of a bitch.” It’s a line that should be spiked with the dual meaning of a reassurance and a barely suppressed put-down, but when it’s delivered it’s neither—it’s simply a statement of fact.
Complicating matters, and getting in the way, Joanna P. Adler and Brian Haley appear as one-dimensional sports announcers, whose obnoxious narration of the match seems to be meant to reveal how far the game has sunk and how clueless the younger set is about the innerworkings of the older set’s minds. The characters are not needed and bring the proceedings to a screeching halt every time they chime in. Veteran Michael Mulheren appears as a lifelong tennis fan in one touching scene, but it quickly degenerates into a sort of dry history lesson as the women thumb through his inherited autograph book. His other appearances undermine the visual impact of the women we’ve come to see.
I think Deuce could be vastly improved if it were what its title implies—a two-woman show.