I HAD MY DOUBTS ABOUT Terrence McNally’s Deuce, starring those two icons of theater, Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes, as a pair of tennis icons, when I read before the curtain went up a learned note in the Playbill entitled “Tennis Scoring”:
“A tennis game consists of sets, games and points. Tennis scoring proceeds in points from love (or zero) to 15, 30 and 40. If both players have scored three points, the score is described as ‘deuce.’ When the score remains tied, it is described as ‘deuce,’ no matter how many points have been played. The player who scores the first point after deuce has the ‘advantage’”—and on it drones.
Thank God the play isn’t about golf; we’d be reading Playbill all night. (“A golf ball is something you hit with a golf club. But only on a golf course …. ”)
When the curtain rose on Ms. Lansbury—making her first appearance on Broadway in almost 25 years—and her famous co-star, Ms. Seldes, they received a prolonged and loving ovation just for turning up. They play Leona Mullen and Midge Barker, and we’re asked to believe that they were once the greatest doubles team in tennis history. (Doubles: Two players compete with two other players until one side wins.) We believe both the wondrous 81-year-old Ms. Lansbury and the patrician 78-year-old Ms. Seldes in anything they choose to do. But why this? It’s Terrence McNally’s dud of a play we don’t believe.
Leona and Midge—who haven’t seen each other in a decade—are watching a match at the U.S. Open on the day they’re to be honored as pioneering tennis legends. But Mr. McNally has failed to root his play in any sense of reality. His two TV commentators, onstage in a sound booth overlooking the action, are second-rate sitcom buffoons—the playwright’s inappropriate stab at satire, I guess. There’s also a gushing Everyman named “Admirer” who worships Leona and Midge and comes out with Churchillian guff like “You will not see their likes again,” or this mighty insight into the game: “You and I play tennis. Leona Mul
len and Midge Barker did something else. They were artists we could imagine knowing. They were you and me, only better. Maybe that’s why I don’t have as much invested in who wins tennis anymore. It’s their fault.”
Meanwhile, the two old broads bicker with each other like a tired married couple as a singles match is keenly contested on center court. (Singles: Same as doubles, only with half the players). Mr. McNally occasionally has Leona and Midge say “fuck” and even the C-word for lovably risqué effect, like The Golden Girls being “naughty.” There’s desultory talk about death and going quietly into the night, and awfully familiar conversation about tennis-playing lesbians, the commercialization of the sport, and the modern power game versus nostalgic glories of the wooden-racket era.
Some kind of vague showdown is promised between Leona and Midge—but never delivered. (They’re stuck at deuce.) Even the combined genius of Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes can’t save the play, which is directed by Michael Blakemore.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.